I am an ob/gyn physician and talk about blood/periods/menses every day. However, talking about this subject is not a luxury in much of the developing world and menses still carries a stigma. But without periods there would be no people. My own experiences 30 years ago exemplify many of the problems our society has with this normal reproductive function. My mother never talked to me about menstruation – I heard about it while at a girls sleepover with friends. Whenever I had to purchase tampons/pads at the store, I always made sure that there was a female at the checkout before getting in line. In ancient societies, women were isolated from the family while bleeding, as they were considered unclean. Even today, Muslim women are not allowed to participate in religious activities or to say prayers while menstruating. What does this mean to a young girl in a developing world country? When she starts bleeding at age 12-13, she may think she is dying because she has seen or heard about women dying in childbirth due to bleeding (postpartum hemorrhage is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the third world). Her family is barely able to afford food, so purchasing disposable hygiene products is not an option. If she is in school, she often needs to stay home for a week each month as she has no way to hide the bleeding. Missing school so frequently means you fall behind in your studies and may need to quit. And as study after study has proven, education of women is what often succeeds to elevate a society out of desperate poverty. The cost for keeping a girl in school during that one week of the month? Education and a supply of feminine hygiene products. Seems like a simple solution and not much cost, right? The problem in many of these countries is sanitation and disposing of pads. Landfills and composting are not in existence, nor is a trash can to dispose of your soiled pads. Disposable pads are also not sustainable in that outside groups need to commit to continuously supply the products. Days for Girls (daysforgirls.org) has developed a sustainable, non-disposable option. Absorbent cloth pads that are washable and developed with input from girls and women in developing world countries.
I first heard about this organization and the work it was doing while reading an Oprah magazine on the plane ride to Africa. I reflected back on my experiences in Haiti. Many women come to clinic with heavy menses due to fibroids that require surgery. I have been handed bloody rags that these women use for absorption and then need to rewash and use again the next month. After delivering a baby, no pads are supplied by the hospital and these new moms often just rewash the blanket that they lay on. Days for Girls operates by using the resources and skills of American women to construct the pads and then distribute them to schools in the third world. But to make this idea completely sustainable, use of resources within a developing world country to construct the pads would benefit more women. This thought lead to my latest project. Helping Haiti Work is a microfinance organization that I started in Limbe, Haiti 2 years ago to benefit the women of the community in which I volunteer my time as a surgeon each year. Thus far, we have awarded 86 women loans of $200 each to start or expand a small business. The loans are repayable over 10 months at a small interest rate. The program has been extremely successful with a 100% payback rate and many women on a waiting list for the next round of loans. The board of Helping Haiti Work has brainstormed for new ideas to implement and this project seemed like the ideal solution; Sustainable, Educational, Improve sanitation and Hygiene. We are also fortunate that a group of 3 Canadian graduate students will be spending 3 months in the area and need a project as part of their community development program. The students will teach a small group of women how to construct the pads and resource the materials in country. The pads will be given to postpartum women in the hospital to use and the microfinance women will be paid a fee per pad constructed. Additionally, we are giving 50 pre-constructed pads to selected microfinance women to use and give us feedback on any product changes. The goal in the future is a sewing center where women pay a fee to use the sewing machines and purchase their own materials to construct the pads. These pads can be sold in the local markets and to hospitals, generating income for the women.
Menses and feminine hygiene are now frequently used words around my house due to the fact that my kitchen table was serving as a sewing center for the past week. Brightly colored fabrics were being cut into shields and liners and stacked for sewing. My daughters cannot imagine having to use a cloth pad, much less washing that pad by hand rather than in a washing machine. But for girls in Haiti, Africa and India who are currently using rags, leaves or nothing, I think there might be a different response. Please consider helping to support this start up venture by sharing this page with friends or with donations. Education is important not only for young girls regarding the normal process of menses, but also for those of us in the first world to realize what barriers women in the developing world face. Multiple different ways to share this post are available via the buttons below. Donations can be made on our website, helpinghaitiwork.org. We are a nonprofit organization and donations are tax deductible.