Sanitary pads that empower women, and keep girls healthy and in school. Who knew that something so simple could be so life-changing?
In Sierra Leone, most women don’t have a hygienic way of managing their period. They often use makeshift materials like five-pairs of underwear, kitchen sponges or old cloth to manage their menstruation.
WHY IS THIS A PROBLEM?
Because without access to water and sanitation infrastructure, washing is often done in open water sources full of bacteria. Once washed, the soiled cloth or underwear used for menstruation management cannot be hung out to dry in the sun because of cultural taboos around menstrual blood. This means materials are dried indoors, in extremely humid conditions. As a result, materials cannot dry fully, and women are forced to wear damp cloth- a breeding ground for diseases. Because of the unhygienic nature of these materials, women experience rashes, sores and bruising. Yikes.
Studies have shown that it is because of these problems that when girls have their periods, they can lose up to 12 weeks of school each year.
AND THAT’S WHERE LAUNCHPAD COMES IN.
Back in 2010, we surveyed women and girls across Sierra Leone to research the issues related to managing menstruation. It was found that only 10% of the women and girls surveyed had ever heard of a sanitary pad. Based on this research, we created our LaunchPad’s project to give women and girls access to affordable, hygienic sanitary products, as well as educating women and girls on menstrual health and hygiene. Because knowledge is empowering.
Since 2011 we have trained up 15 female leaders in 5 rural communities across Sierra Leone, and the capital city, Freetown to sell affordable, biodegradable sanitary pads to women and girls in their communities. They’ve been equipped with business management, financial literacy and menstrual hygiene management training through our partner Restless Development Sierra Leone.
Through selling the pads the LaunchPad Champions able to make a small profit, raise awareness in their communities about the importance of menstrual health and hygiene training, and ensure that the sanitary pads are available. We also supply our Scholarship girls with free access to pads to make sure their periods never keep them away from school.
WHERE DO THE PADS COME FROM?
The Sanitary pads we used are called Makapads, sourced from our partner Technology for Tomorrow, in Uganda. These pads are made from papyrus leaves and paper waste with higher absorption capacity than regular pads. Production requires little electricity, and is entirely hands-on. Pads are 95% biodegradable, and sell for half the cost of regular pads on the market.
WHY DON’T YOU USE REUSABLE FABRIC PADS INSTEAD?
After surveying 500 women and girls, we discovered that many of them find it embarrassing to have to wash their soiled cloth (called ‘pieces’) in public washing areas. We believe that reusable fabric pads would present similar challenges as these pieces, as it is essentially a piece of cloth that will need to be washed in the same bacteria-filled water sources, and dried in a similar way.
WHAT ABOUT DIVA CUPS/ MOON CUPS/ TAMPONS?
More than 90% of the women in Sierra Leone have undergone Female Genital Cutting (FGC). This means that they find it incredibly painful to insert anything into their bodies.
Additionally, virginity is valued very highly in Sierra Leone. Teenage girls would be unable to use tampons or cups for fear of ruining their future chance of marriage.
It is generally considered taboo to use any of these products in developing countries, therefore the reliable sanitary pad is a much more socially acceptable option!
WHY DON’T YOU GIVE ALL THE PADS AWAY FOR FREE?
Women in Sierra Leone don’t find hand-outs empowering. We’ve had women tell us directly “We don’t want free things, we want business. We’re business women, work with us.”
Research has also shown that when people pay for a product, they are much more likely to use it – they’ve made a personal investment in it so they’ll put it to good use.
The pads we sell are still subsidised, however by taking in a small cut off each of the pads, it does reduce some of the funding pressure on our organisation, thus making the project more sustainable in the long run.
MAH AND THE MAWORR WOMEN’S SAVINGS GROUP
These incredible women have taken LaunchPad to a whole other level of epic.
After a couple of years of selling the pads in their rural community of Maworr, two LaunchPad Champions, Mah and Aminata (below, holding the box) decided to join forces with other women in their community to scale their impact.
Rather than just keeping the individual profits for themselves, 20 community women decided work together and sell the pads, and pool all their profits together. They put them in a special box and use the collective profits to provide grants to members of the group – whether they use it to pay for school fees, food, or medicine if one of their members becomes sick.
All decisions about grants are made as a group, and no one woman owns or controls the box of profits. It’s such an incredible example of women supporting women – and in turn building up their community!
This wasn’t something we created or asked them to do – this was a solution that came completely from their own initiative, responding to their own needs as they know best. And the best bit? Mah has already gone out and trained a nearby community to start a similar box. This is what happens when you empower women – they empower others.