Imagine dropping out of school because you don’t have menstrual pads. To an American, this notion is simply beyond comprehension, yet for thousands of Ethiopian girls—particularly in rural areas—menstruation is an “education killer.” Many girls lack sanitary pads of any kind (even home-made ones). As a result, they are reluctant to go to school when they are on their menstrual periods. Without sanitary pads they are forced to sit in their white dresses in the classroom while their physiological condition gradually becomes apparent to everyone around them. The embarrassment and humiliation are overwhelming. The simplest solution is just to stay home when it is “that time of the month.” The lost school days quickly mount up. The girls fall behind in their schoolwork. Soon it is easier to stay home all of the time to help with household chores and their education is finished. The result is a tragic loss of intellectual capacity for a country that needs to use every resource it can muster. Enter an unlikely heroine, a “Menstrual Crusader”. Her name is Freweini Mebrahtu, an Ethiopian businesswoman and philanthropist who remembers the acute pain of going through these experiences herself as an adolescent in Adrigat, a few kilometers north of Mekelle. Freweini trained as a chemical engineer in Houston at Prairie View A&M and later returned to Ethiopia with a passion to make a difference in girls’ lives. Her solution: create an inexpensive, ecologically-friendly, re-usable sanitary pad that can be made locally and distributed widely to all the girls in Tigray. Freweini’s ultimate goal is to extend this project throughout the developing world.
Freweini founded the Mariamseba Sanitary Products Factory here in Mekelle. It took her unbelievable effort to accomplish; in fact, she lived in the factory for two years while she was getting it up and running. (She has since been able to move out to a nicer home!).
The Mariamseba Sanitary Products Factory turns out washable, re-usable sanitary pads made from local materials at a cost at least 85% cheaper than disposable sanitary pads. Each pad is made of soft cotton with a waterproof outer layer than prevents leak-through. The pads have a 12-18 month “life,” making them affordable for all but the poorest of the poor (for those girls, Freweini has a free distribution program, but the need for supplies is almost overwhelming). The availability of these products has been transformational for thousands of Ethiopian schoolgirls, who can now continue their education without an inconvenient monthly interruption.
Helen and I visited the factory, which is in the Ayder Industrial Zone just behind Ayder Hospital. Helen (herself an expert seamstress) can confirm that the pads are of very high quality—no corners cut here! The factory is housed in a newly constructed facility that can employ up to 60 girls when running at full capacity. (When we visited, it was well below capacity, due to it being the day after Timkat when many workers took an additional day off as a holiday). The vast majority of the employees are young women, recruited from the community around the factory, who are given a month of training to turn them into commercial seamstresses. They work 8 hour days, have paid vacations, and get up to three months of paid maternity leave. They also get help with medical expenses. Turnover is fairly high, largely because the girls generally get married, become pregnant soon after, and then drop out to stay at home, but Freweini is exploring the idea of establishing a factory-based daycare facility (an absolutely unheard-of idea in Ethiopia!). The idea that a packet of re-usable menstrual pads costing about $1.50 could transform the lives of legions of girls is rather astonishing.
Even more astonishing was Freweini’s realization once she started working on this project that many of the girls who needed sanitary pads didn’t even have underwear, so she had to design a complete system that included cotton underwear, a Velcro-type fastener that would attach the reusable pad to the underwear, and all the rest.
The Meriamseba Sanitary Products Factory is a testimony to ingenuity, hard work, vision, and a real social need. We will be brainstorming with Freweini over the next couple of months to see how we can expand, enhance, publicize, and promote this initiative for the girls of Ethiopia and beyond. Menstruation should never, ever be a barrier to the education of girls and women.