Making Sanitary Pads to Help Keep Girls in School

by |May 30, 2012

MCI is lucky enough to work with two amazing Ethiopian women from the region of Tigray, in the north of the country where the Millennium City of Mekelle is located. Both women have gone abroad to become talented professionals and both have resolved to transform the lives of women and young girls in their native region, returning home, one permanently, in order to do so.

Columbia University School of Nursing Professor Mary Moran, through her organization, Girls2Women, has developed an innovative sanitary pad-making program in Mekelle, designed to keep girls in school. With facilitation by MCI Social Sector Specialist Aberash Abay and in close coordination with the Mekelle schools and the Tigray Regional Health Bureau, the program has succeeded so far in training girls at 19 out of Mekelle’s 34 public primary schools, has produced 1,000 attractive and reusable cloth pads and is in the process of being scaled to cover many more schools, both within Mekelle and reaching into the peri-urban areas outside of town.

The story of Mary’s initiative is inspiring. In 2009, having decided she wanted to give back to her native Ethiopia, she met with the then-Director of the Tigray Regional Health Bureau, Dr. Gebreab Barnabas, who told her that from his perspective, keeping girls in school was one of his country’s greatest challenges. Too many young girls are forced to drop out of school, with reasons typically ranging from not being able to pay for tuition to needing to help with household chores. But Prof. Moran found that menstruation was also a factor. While there is little scientific research concluding that girls miss school days because of their menstrual cycles, there is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence that this is indeed the case, with girls missing school for days at a time because they lack access to private latrines or feminine products. And when girls miss too many days of school, they often cannot keep up or pass exams, so they eventually drop out.

In a 2010 blog on Mary’s work and the founding of Girls2Women, MCI described how Mary found that disposable sanitary pads were prohibitively expensive for many girls and women, even in Mekelle, where there is slightly more disposal income than in the countryside. She knew there had to be a way to help girls find an affordable solution, so she asked her CU nursing students to help her come up with a design for sanitary pads that made use of Ethiopia’s colorful, durable cottons. The students created and tested a number of options and decided on a square design that would be both reusable and culturally acceptable. Aberash and Mary then introduced the project at first in six Mekelle schools, teaching more than 200 students how to make, wash and maintain the sanitary pads.

Mary Moran’s nursing students test models for reusable sanitary pads.

Girls2Women supplies the material, sourced at a discount from Mekelle’s own MAA Garment Factory, as well as the threads, needles and templates. Two students from each participating school have been selected to attend a vocational training program offered by Mums for Mums, a local NGO that teaches mothers how to make things in economical ways. The girls are learning to use sewing machines, and once their training is complete, Girls2Women will provide sewing machines for them to use to make and sell garments.

In March, more than 96 people, including students, teachers and school administrators, along with former health extension workers who are now midwifery students at Mekelle University, attended a workshop to assess the impact of the project on high school girls’ attendance and to solicit recommendations for content to be included in a handbook on puberty and development. Mekelle University’s OB/GYN and Midwifery School has agreed to publish the final handbook, which will be distributed in all Mekelle secondary schools.

Girls2Women has also collaborated with the Amhara Development Association (ADA), training 80 high school teachers in the Debra Berhan District in how to make the sanitary pads. The ADA will provide the materials for the schools and expects the number of girls to benefit from this program to be in the thousands. In addition, Girls2Women has joined forces with the Ethiopia-based Forum for African Women Educationalists, which works to empower women and has agreed to roll out a similar sanitary pad project to schools in Addis Ababa. And Seattle-based Project Ethiopia, which is helping to build schools in rural Ethiopia, has introduced the concept to students in the Bahadir District.

The other returnee to her native Tigray, Ms. Freweini Mebrahtu, has an equally inspiring story. She left Ethiopia years ago to seek an education and graduated from Texas A & M with a degree in chemical engineering. After working abroad for a number of years, Freweini returned to Tigray in 1992 to see how she might contribute toward development of her native country and community. Returning to her family’s village, she asked women and girls how she might be able to help them. Remembering how little help or information she had received from the women in her family or her teachers when her own menstruation began – she said she woke up and was “terrified,” believing that she was bleeding to death, a feeling no doubt experienced by many girls not given sufficient information about their developing bodies – she asked in particular about what they do these days, when they have their periods. They told her that they simply don’t have access to pads and explained that they couldn’t afford them even if they had access. Instead, women and girls reported, they often wrap their head coverings or shawls, called netalah, around and around their lower bodies. Should there be “an accident,” such as any kind of spotting, while at school or in the market, the associated shame and mortification would result in creating, “another unspoken dropout.”

“There is a myth, you see, that you shouldn’t be menstruating unless you are ‘a bad girl,'” Freweini explained.

The other way of coping that the village women and girls reported to Freweini is no more viable: as has been done since ancient times, “they dug a hole inside the house, and they all sit on it for four or five days,” until the bleeding stops – thereby missing all those days of school or work every single month!

On the basis of this illuminating research, Freweini knew immediately that she had identified a challenge that, with her chemical engineering expertise, she was uniquely qualified to help solve. She went into a lab and developed a formula, which she has since patented, for a reusable sanitary pad that is attractive and attaches via Velcro to a girl’s or woman’s underwear. Despite significant pressure to invest in Addis Ababa, the national capital, Freweini resolved to set up shop in her home region of Mekelle, just as the city itself, with support and encouragement from MCI, is now encouraging many other investors to do.

Freweini Mebrahtu explains the chemistry of her reusable sanitary pad.

She formed a company, MariamSeba, named for Freweini’s own beautiful young daughter, mustered more than a quarter of a million dollars in investment capital and has built and is now running a large, airy, well-ventilated factory in Mekelle’s new industrial zone, where she has created jobs for some 40 young women, each with a minimum of a 10th-grade education, to produce these pads in an array of colors.

MCI’s Aberash Abay enters Freweini’s MariamSeba Factory.

A set of four of the pads, which Freweini has appealingly packaged in a small feminine cloth bag, sells for about $1.40 and is designed to last approximately two years.

A set of sanitary pads, produced by MariamSeba Factory.

Freweini’s payscale accelerates faster and more steeply than do her peers in the local garment industry, she told MCI. She has promoted aggressively from within, training and empowering young women as she goes. She ardently supports her workers’ continuing with their education; indeed, she has plans to start playing educational tapes over the factory loudspeakers, along with the news programs and popular and traditional music that the current workers seem to enjoy.

Factory workers at MariamSeba.

“I want them to just crave coming to work,” she told MCI, with palpable passion for her own self-generated mission.

Freweini is less than elated with some of the aftercare services she has received from the city – she was awarded only half the space she had requested; the road leading to her factory is deeply rutted and impassable during heavy rains; she would like a larger tax holiday as an incentive or reward for having set up a new job-generating business in town; and she is still waiting for public officials to acknowledge more publicly her commitment to the city and the contribution she is making. However, Freweini is excited about her product, her crew of increasingly confident and worldly workers, and about growing what she has created into a business with far greater productive capacity that can serve girls across the region and, eventually, nationwide.

“We’re basically changing the lives of these girls and changing their lives is changing their families’ lives,” she said with justifiable satisfaction.

But as often happens in developing world contexts, the filling of one gap has led to the identification of another. In the course of their work, Freweini, Mary and Aberash have become aware that many of the girls, both outside and within Mekelle, do not have underwear to which they can attach their new sanitary pads. So Girls2Women recently began looking at ways to design undergarments, using locally made gently-used T-shirts, and Freweini has recently diversified into the manufacture and sale of locally sourced, soft cotton panties, one pair of which is given away, for now, with the purchase of a set of the pads.

A MariamSeba workers finalizes production of cotton undergarments.

At MCI’s suggestion, after recent visits to the schools participating in the Girls2Women pad-making project and to MariamSeba factory, Dr. Yibrah Berhe, of the Tigray Regional Bureau of Health and already a key sponsor of the Girls2Women project, went to visit Freweini’s factory and committed there and then to purchasing and distributing 10,000 pads around Tigrai during the coming school year.

Moreover, we were accompanied on our visit to the factory by Ms. Abenaa Akuamoa-Boateng, MCI’s Regional Coordinator for West and Central Africa and Project Manager for Kumasi, Ghana, who was deeply impressed, by the product, the factory and by the example set by Freweini herself. Abenaa purchased a pad to show to a Kumasi NGO that serves the impoverished and hard-working local population of kayaye, the women and girl head porters who work in Kumasi’s sprawling market. Indeed, Abenaa’s instinct was correct: the NGO seemed interested in purchasing some as a trial, to see whether they would be well-received. And so would the ingenuity and generosity of women in one Millennium City help to transform the lives of women and girls in another, clear across the continent.

MCI very much looks forward to working closely with Mary and Freweini, to help facilitate the growth and flourishing of both projects, and, together with the Regional Bureau of Health, to monitor the Girls2Women training programs so as to better assess the effect the reusable pads can have on reducing missed school days and keeping girls in school. In the meantime, we’re deeply grateful that these creative, low-cost interventions, and the commitment of these brilliant and committed Ethiopian women, appears to be having a significant impact on girls’ schooling and ultimately, on girls’ empowerment, both in Mekelle and well beyond.

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28 thoughts on “Making Sanitary Pads to Help Keep Girls in School

  1. Atim Dnah says:

    I have just surfed to enhance my thinking and got this site, Kindly share with me the technology further. I have a just formed organization and have been thinking of ideas on how to keep the young girls longer in rural schools in my area of operational and just thought of this local pads. I will be glad if you share with me the ideas

  2. Hi, am greatful to read about this, am also willing to make girls in my home area to fell great because i understand they are suffering. most of them fail to go to school during this time of the month . Please advice

  3. tinah says:

    Kindly share with me the technology further. I have a just formed an organization and have been thinking of ideas on how to keep the young girls longer in rural schools in my area of operational and just thought of this local pads. I will be glad if you share with me the ideas

  4. Mary Moran says:

    Atim Dnah, Pamela Alekana and Tinan please send me your emails and I will gladly share the art of pad making with you so that girls may continue their education. This project has had and is having a huge impact on the Ethiopian girls school attendance and grades.
    The technology requires needles and sissors.
    Looking forward to working with you. Sincerely, Mary

  5. alice njuguna says:

    Helo, there will also be glad to learn the art.Iam here in kenya and our girls also have the same problems.Will appreciate to learn both disposable and the others.
    Thanks for the good work yor are doing.

  6. Joyce Middleton says:

    I am a retired elementary school teacher.I have gone to a school in a remote area of Tanzania twice. While at the school I have helped to teach English. My husband and brother worked with the men of the community to make significant improvements to the school. On our last trip we purchased 2 sewing machines and the women learned to use them. My sister in law who is a nurse accompanied us on the last trip and did some work with the ladies on health related issues and family planning. Each woman was provided with a sewing kit and a first aid kit. My husband and I are returning to the community in February 2014. I am very interested in your sanitary napkins and in the possibility of teaching the women of the community to make them. Would it be possible to get your pattern and instructions. It would be of great value to us. Thank you in advance for your consideration of my request.

  7. Mary Moran says:

    Dear Joyce, I am delighted to read your comment. Of course I am delighted to share our patterns with you. Should you prefer I will send you some samples to take with you for the girls and women you will be working with.
    Drop me an email.
    I have included our website for you to view.
    Sincerely, Mary

  8. Phyllis Brock says:

    A local MD is going to Ethopia and we want to make some sanitary pads for her to take. What works best for the young women. Type of cloth, pattern. do you make a sanitary belt, fasten with safety pins? Help and than you

  9. Nnenna Urom says:

    Dear Mariam,
    I am working at a similar project targeting young women in my village.Please could you share the art of pad making with me as well as your patterns to help build my capacity.Many thanks

  10. Cate says:

    I am an office Manager in an NGO in Arusha Tanzania,we work with children and women empowerment. Am very much impressed with what you are doing for the young girls in Ethiopia.
    I am interested to do the same to our girls here in Tanzania and to make a change into their lives and also to the community at large.
    I’ll be delighted to get to learn how to do the reusable pads so that i can teach women and young girls in Arusha.

    Kind regards

  11. Pamela says:

    Iam a teacher from Malawi and I also work as a volunteer at a certain NGO which mainly focuses on youth leadership and transformative engagement.
    I am also interested in a similar project because the girls here are encountering the same problems.Sanitary pads are very expensive and most of them do not afford to buy them as a result these girls use old clothes, blankets,plastic papers which makes it difficult for them to go to school during their monthly periods.I would be so greatful if you share the tips on how to make these reusable pads so that I can help girls in my area.
    Thank you in advance

  12. Selah PIper says:


    I have just started my own similar project. I would love it if you could tell me if you deliver and if you could help me help other girls in Ethiopia.

    Selah Piper

  13. Catherine Ruge says:

    Hi Der, am interested to do the same inTanzania i have an NGO supporting girls in secondary school to reduce drop outs and menstruction is one of the factor, i think this would help to solve the solution
    kindly email me

  14. R. santen says:

    Please..I need to know what the pads are made of

  15. Omondi Smith Georges says:

    need to help girls from our area urgently from unwanted pregnancies and school dropouts. thumbs up for the good work you’re doing.

  16. Hi Mariam, i am a Project Officer working for a local organization that empowers rural women and girls by providing practical skills for livelihood improvement. We have a sister company- an eco friendly EPZ that has employed more than 50 women from the locality. Our local organization runs a Stitching Academy that provides export quality cutting and stitching skills for underprivileged girls and women to prepare them for employment and business in the fashion industry. As an after care, the organization has recently opened a Stitching Academy Hub that is equipped with industrial quality sewing machines for them to use as they sharpen their skills and develop their start-up businesses. Recently we realized a challenge whereby most girls even those at the Stitching Academy and the women we’ve employed to work at the factory as well as majority of school girls that we support through bursaries and infrastructure development for their schools miss schooling days due to menstrual periods. We are planning on training the girls, our employees and the students on how to make reusable sanitary pads from scrap fabric that we produce in tonnes from the factory for distribution to the local community and for their own use. Our challenge is that we lack the art and skill of making quality reusable sanitary pads and will do with your generous support by sending us the knowledge and skills.

  17. Carol Pittendrigh says:

    I’ve been invited by a corporate in a small town in South Africa to do a sewing workshop for rural women. One of the items I’ll be showing them will be reusable sanitary pads as this idea is only now catching on here! But, I don’t have a workable, tried & tested pattern . I would be so grateful if you could share with me! Also, suggestions for readily available materials. I’ve Googled this, & some pads require waterproof fabric – great idea, but what could rural women use that is affordable? Our fabrics probably have different names to yours, but can you offer suggestions? So excited to have found you!

  18. kabanyana Josephine says:

    Hi my fellow women? Am Josephine from Uganda. Am really impressed by the work you are doing to keep girls in school
    I need help from you, on how to make those pads, I have been given that project to retrieve it again because they had started it but failed. Now they have given me that responsibility in that organization, I would be really grateful to learn more from you and help my fellow girls to keep in school and develop them economically.

  19. DORIS says:

    Hello. Am Doris from Kenya
    This is a good idea and we (as a self help group) have been thinking of how we can help keep the rural girl in school without missing classes due to menstruation periods. Kindly advise us further on how to go about it. We need to empower these girls….These are our future leaders!!!

  20. Shadrick Sikaonga says:

    Am amazed by this idea of reusable sanitary pads. I have worked for the Ministry of Eduv=cation in Zambia for over 10 years and seen menstrual cycles as one contributing factor to absenteeism. Am quite interested in your innovation and would very much want to replicate this idea in my country to help the girl child especially those in rural areas. How could we collaborate in this venture? Please advise. My email is

  21. Roberta Monos says:

    I am a retired teacher who is researching ways to help schools in South Sudan and in the refugee centers in Uganda. I read that they need menstral pads and underwear for the many refugees. Please share with me information on how you make both of these items. I would like to get started here in the USA with volunteers to help fill this need.

  22. Connie Crye says:

    Please please let me know if I can sew these and donate them? It’s one of the few talents I have. I live I. FL in the USA. Connie

  23. It’s a good thing to make reusable sanitary pads.Am a director of a local community based organization in Busoga region working with children with disabilities.It is called WALUNA foundation .we started this for mainly the less previlaged girls with disabilities.& and also training them get skills for self reliance as away for them to get income.

  24. Ina says:

    I am interested in our women’s group making sanitary pads. Could you please share a pattern with us.

  25. Konji t Kefetew says:

    Hello, Yes, the initiative is great and affordable to many girls, and the significance of making it reusable is excellent. Great work for adolescent girls, who are missing classes and really suffering due to the absence of sanitay pads. This will also help us particularly for emergency response programs. Konjit

  26. Pastor Ameal M.M.Akam says:

    I am the National Coordinator of a Network established to promote the divine bond that exist between Christians and the Jewish people from where the faith of Christianity originated as well as promoting the diplomatic ties between our nation and the state of Israel that created an indelible mark in the political landscape of our country . In our campaign to sensitized communities across our nation, we put measures in place to identify most vulnerable gender groups and then solicit dire needed support to alleviate the undue sufferings of such groups. The situation of the physically challenged persons in our society is very deplorable and degrading to their humanity for all sexes and with specific reference to the women and girls that most often abused and dumped. On humanitarian grounds we have identify this gender group to work on their spiritual lives and as well solicit support to empower then fora lifelong means of livelihood to guarantee their physical fitness. On several dialog engagement with these people, they have expressed their dislike of going out in the streets to engage in beg as their sole means of livelihood. I am very much impressed with what you are doing for the young girls in Ethiopia and am very much convinced that if replicated here, this will improve the sanitary condition of the disables women and girls and create permanent means of livelihood for them if given the opportunity to be trained to produce the reusable pads for their own use and sell to the general public. This will help to ease the economic and social burden experienced as most of them suffer abuse and dumped with fatherless children to care for, while the school going find difficulty in attending school sessions during their menstrual period.
    We are interested to do the same here for our disable women and girls here in Sierra Leone and to make a change into their lives and also to the community at large.
    we’ll be delighted to get to learn how to do the reusable pads so that we can solicit resources to empower this segment of disables in our society.

    I thank you in advance for your attention and kind consideration

    Kind regards

  27. Mary Moran says:

    Hello All. I am sorry not to have responded to your comments. Will you please forgive me? For the instructions access our web click on the News & Reports tab and scroll to the PDF file Self-Made Reusable Pads work book. There you will find the steps for making durable, reusable, economical & environmentally friendly feminine pads, baby diapers, and panties.
    The Ethiopia project continues to grow. Girls have implemented the project in many colleges with support from the Gender Office in their college.
    Take this simple project far and wide. every woman & family deserve dignity & support. Sincerely Mary

  28. Valerie Dyer says:

    Do some of the young ladies still need panties to attach the pads to? This could be a wonderful project for my students to do. Please give me information on how we can help with the panties. Where to send them, etc.
    Thank you.

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