“When women support each other, incredible things happen.”
It’s a cute saying we’d be inclined to double-tap when it comes up in our feed, especially today on International Womens’ Day. But it’s more than a ‘grammable quote. It’s a fundamental truth that we see play out in our work each and every day.
About a year ago we learned about an amazing group of women doing just that. Supporting each other. Working together. Joining forces, and creating something truly incredible.
And this is one of the women at the heart of this story. Her name is N’Mah. And she is one of our LaunchPad champions.
As part of her training to become a LaunchPad champion, N’Mah was given menstrual health and hygiene training. She was trained up in the ins and outs of periods: what they were, what caused them, and how best to manage them. She was taught about sanitary pads – and shown how to use them. And why sanitary pads were a better, safer, more hygienic option than newspaper, sponges, and cut up rags called pieces.
And then she was given small business skills and financial literacy training – so that she would be equipped to sell sanitary pads to the women and girls in her community. Along the way, N’Mah was passing on her knowledge about periods, and menstrual hygiene to the women and girls around her. She’s a teacher by profession, so educating others came naturally to N’Mah. She wanted the women and girls around her to be empowered with the same knowledge she had – and by using the biodegradable sanitary pads, the girls would be able to stay in school during their periods. The women would be able to work comfortably. And they could all avoid the myriad of health complications that came from using the ‘pieces’ – which were not only unhygienic, they simply did not work – causing leaking, rashes, sores and infection.
And over the years, N’Mah and Kadiatu, the other LaunchPad champion in her community, could’ve continued in the same way – selling the pads, earning a profit for themselves, and impacting on the lives of each of the women and girls they sold pads to.
And that alone would have been a powerful success story.
But, then, something even more incredible happened. As more women in her community found out about the LaunchPad project – they wanted to get involved too. They could see the positive impact using the pads had, and they wanted to do more. What if they could join forces? What if they could contribute to a bigger change?
So N’Mah and the women formed a group. They called it a Savings Group. And they began to work together to sell pads – but instead of keeping the individual profits for themselves, they pooled them together into a special box. The LaunchPad Profits Box. And each of the 20 women in the group all collectively owned the profits in the box. They had 3 separate keys for 3 separate locks, all held by different women – and another woman kept the box safe. Then, once a month, they would decide what to do with the profits. As a group, they would come together and vote on where the savings should be invested. Some months the money would be given to a sick member of the community – who needed the funds for medical attention. One month the money went to pay for school fees for another family in the community.
And do you know what one of our favourite parts of this story is? This isn’t something we told the women to do. This isn’t something we dreamed up in our Programs office – or a planned activity within our LaunchPad project.
This was something the women sought out, created, and implemented themselves. Because they saw a need, and – as women do – they forged a solution. Together.
When we visited the Maworr community that N’Mah’s Savings Group was, we were blown away. So blown away in fact, that we decided this idea – this freaking great idea – had legs. And we wanted to see where we could take it.
So over the course of several months, we worked closely with our in-country Sierra Leone team to scale these Savings Groups across every single one of our LaunchPad communities and schools. We even brought on another full-time team member in Sierra Leone to manage this. We had N’Mah and other women from the original Savings Group train the other champions on the system that they established – and the women embraced the concept. We know they don’t look super thrilled in the photo below, but we reckon they’re giving us their fierce-faces…
So now there isn’t just one Womens’ Savings Group – there are 14 across our communities and schools – both in rural Sierra Leone in the Mile 91 region, and in Freetown, the capital. We had previously only been in Mile 91, but due to increased demand from women in Freetown, we decided to bring LaunchPad there too.
Throughout 2016 our LaunchPad champions distributed over 8000 packets of pads! That’s a lot of periods being managed. And managed well, we might add!
To continue the sustainable growth of the project we trained 5 more LaunchPad champions, and did refresher training for our existing champions. And after hearing feedback from some of our scholarship girls, we also decided to introduce LaunchPad into schools.
As part of our Scholarships program, all our scholars receive sanitary pads as part of their scholarship package – because we know that without them, girls are more likely to stay home during their period. And their peers noticed. Other girls who weren’t on our program started seeing the pads, and they wanted to try them too. We even heard stories of girls divvying up their pad packet amongst their friends so they could try them!
So we saw an opportunity. We trained up 14 school-based LaunchPad champions who could sell the affordable sanitary pads to their friends and educate their peers on menstrual health and hygiene, as well as setting up a Savings Group to benefit even more girls.
The LaunchPad project was created to address a specific problem being faced by women and girls in the communities we work in – a lack of options to safely and hygienically manage their periods. But the results have seen women and girls benefit in countless other ways.
We have seen such an incredible example of what happens when women support women – and we have seen this support reap community-wide benefits. It’s anecdotal and small-scale change, sure. But it’s these small wins that help remind us of what we’re fighting for. We’re fighting for more choices, more opportunities, and more ways forward for the women and girls we work with.
When we zoom out and look at the situation for women and girls globally, the statistics can paint a bleak picture.
Going from the current global gender pay gap, it would take 170 years for women and men around the world to be paid equally.
Every year 15 million girls are married before the age of 18.
And still, there are over 60 million girls around the world who are denied an education.
Those numbers can be overwhelming, but we think to some of the things our LaunchPad champions have said, and the individual lives that have been changed through the program.
One champion, Susan had observed the cultural and wellbeing changes happening in her community. She says, “being a LaunchPad champion has made me feel happy, because I can see there is a change in good health taking over our community.”
Another champion, Leticia, was excited to see her friends and peers grow in financial knowledge, saying, “I love being a LaunchPad champion because I can see the Savings Group members now know how to track their daily income and make good use of their profit.”
And for so many champions, a desire to support others in their community is a key driver for their work as a LaunchPad champion. Isatu says, “I want to see that every woman in my community, and the people as a whole, are all healthy.”
We have a long way to go – and the fight is far from over. But as we look ahead on International Women’s Day, we also want to celebrate the wonderful things made possible when women support each other.
The incredible flow-on effects that occur when women are given the opportunities and tools to learn and thrive.
And the simple, but powerful, truth that empowered women, empower women.