Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Pads for Empowerment

When I first arrived here, I was appalled to learn that menstruation is a major challenge for school age girls in Malawi.


Because they don't have sanitary products to use. 

Not only are pads too expensive for most Malawian girls and women, they are also widely unavailable in rural areas where 85% of the country's population lives. Some girls try to use coarse and poorly absorbent local fabrics, but they hurt them, smell and give them rashes.

This means that once a girl starts menstruating, she is likely to miss 3 days of school a month. This is often the 'straw that breaks the camel's' back that causes girls to drop out of school. Girls already have to worry about school fees, heavy work pressures at home and lack of electricity to study at night. Not being able to attend school while menstruating makes getting an education much more difficult.

I see this as an incredible injustice. I remember starting my period and finding it challenging although I had readily available menstrual products. 

FAWEMA (the girl's education NGO that I'm volunteering with) tried an intervention in a school in the South of Malawi to solve this problem. A group of volunteers (called a 'Mother Group) sewed re-usable sanitary pads to girls and saw performance and retention of girl increase. The challenge with this intervention was that it was unsustainable from a resource perspective. Some girls also complained that the pad was uncomfortable.

When my friend Mayme sent me a link to a competition for Women's entrepreneurship in the developing world, we decided to try to model this intervention with a few twists. We added an income generating component for sustainability, made the pad more comfortable and added an economic empowerment component for the female volunteers. Here's a YouTube video we made with the help of my friend Josee for the application.

We've called the project Tilimbikile, a word from Malawi's national language of Chichewa. It is used as an encouragement to work hard and remain strong. We believe that Tilimbikile captures the resilient spirit of Malawian women who are dedicated to improving their lives and bettering their nation as a whole.

Unfortunately we didn't get the grant, but have gone ahead with the project anyways, The World University Service of Canada provided funds to pilot the project. I've been busy the last few weeks rolling it out in 3 different groups in rural areas outside of Lilongwe. Here's what we've done.

My friends Sadia and Briony are fashion designers volunteering in Malawi. They designed a pad based on a sample sent over from Canada (thanks Michelle!). They used locally available materials and designed it so that it can be easily hand sewn.

We put together a curriculum consisting of one-day of pad sewing training and one day of basic business training. We tried it out with a train-the-trainer component on one Mother Group and then rolled it out, using those women as trainers. So far we've trained 3 other mother groups.

Mother Group members in the business training
Mother Group Member presenting the group's business plan at the business training
The idea is that the women can sew and sell the pads for a profit. Some of the profits go to the women with the aim of economically empowering them. A portion of the profits are reinvested in the project so that they can provide pads to needy girls so that they can stay in school on their periods. Since the Mother Groups work to help girls be retained and perform in school, they know the girls who need them most.

The trainings, although not without challenges, have been a lot of fun. It was so inspiring to see the women passionate about helping girls and empowered to make a difference. Hopefully we can roll out more in the future!

Here are some pictures of the past few trainings.

Mother Group Member Cutting Fabric from Pattern

The cut materials ready for sewing!

Mother Group Members sewing the pads
Even the Head Teacher sewed a pad!
Men getting involved - the group village headman (chief of a number of villages) of Nathenje learning to sew pads
My FAWEMA colleague Cecilia & I . Cecilia is the program officer implementing the project.

The women from Nathenje Secondary School at the end of the training


  1. This is very similar to the work we are doing in Kenya. Keep up the good work, we have received a very positive response to the re-usable cloth pads and I know that these girls will greatly benefit from the work you are doing.

  2. Hi Lesley, we met last Saturday. It would be great to meet up again. I must commend you on the efforts that you make towards making a difference in the lives of women in Africa.

  3. Maïsha Marefu soul sister!

    It has been a privilege and soul soothing experience to read you from afar making a sublime difference and seeing the world with eyes of compassion and understanding in silently helping without fear or judgment. You are a bright shining star in a universe that needs you and more like you...the smilea on your beautiful face in photographs captures your illuminated essence and expresses your willingness to give of yourself to make mother Afrika the place of pure love it is regardless of such suffering.

    Keep up your mission of your awakened spirit of supreme passion. The world is a better place, everyday, for all that you do, which is magically natural to you. Thank you-