Twenty years ago, when I was a sophomore in highschool, I was focused on getting my drivers license, maintaining my 4.0 average, and pre-shopping for colleges. My biggest challenges were juggling all of my extra curricular activities along with a job and full academic load. I thought highschool was hard, but in a very privileged sort of way. And despite all the silly things I managed to worry about, my period was certainly not one of them.
When we started working in Fimpulu, I quickly learned how different life is for the girls we now spend time with. For the average Zambian girl, life is one uphill battle after another. Girls are expected to go to school and also do the majority of household work, leaving little time for studying. Most girls come from families that struggle financially to provide for basic items like clothes and food, let alone “extras” like school supplies. Girls are presented with unfortunate messages in the form of traditional proverbs such as “The one with breasts cannot learn.”
In addition to observing how hard life is in general, we saw the far reaching consequences as well.
The myriad challenges unique to girls leads to high absenteeism.
Absenteeism in turn leads to poor academic performance.
Poor performance then leads to extremely high drop-out rates.
And finally, the high drop-out rates leads to early marriages,
large family size
and entrenchment in poverty.
Furthermore, a sad but true reality is that ambitious girls who are desperate to learn often engage in extremely risky behaviors (particularly exchanging sex for money or material goods) in order to get what they need to stay in school. Unfortunately, that tactic often comes with negative consequences such as pregnancy or STDs that take a girl out of school anyway – the worst catch 22 ever.
BUT. We’ve always been convinced that creative options for supporting girls do exist, and we’ve set out to find them.
To ensure that high school girls do not drop out for financial reasons, we began prioritizing girls in our sponsorship program.
For girls that were spending hours per day hauling water, we started installing piped water systems.
And these things made a difference!
However, even for girls that had their school fees paid for them and who weren’t trekking miles for water any more, we still noticed that a lot of girls were “sitting” at home for up to a week every month and we realized we had one more area we needed to tackle.
That thing I never had to think about in highschool. With four women in my house, we had more pads and tampons in the house than the bathroom closet could handle, and yet the girls here in Zambia are sitting at home, waiting for their period to pass so they can go back to school.
And so I threw out the question, “Does anybody sew???”
I had seen designs for reusable feminine hygiene products and felt strongly that this could be an effective, sustainable intervention for the girls whose lack of supplies is the leading cause of absenteeism. Thankfully, our friends in Spokane answered my probe and thus began the Spokane, WA chapter of Days for Girls.
Days for Girls is a non-profit that provides feminine hygiene kits for girls in impoverished nations in order to support the girls in their education so that their period is no longer a reason for them to miss school. By creating a chapter, the Spokane group gained access to Days for Girls’ years of experience, training materials and patterns for everything. Our friends in Spokane began sewing up a storm, holding monthly “sew-days” where a slew of ladies (and a few good men!) would churn out liners, shields and bags.
Over time, the group amassed 600 kits each containing two waterproof shields, eight absorbent liners or pads, two pairs of underwear, a washcloth and soap all contained in a beautiful drawstring bag to be presented along with education about women’s cycles and general health. The group selected five ladies to come and be apart of the inaugural distribution, providing education and kits to 600 girls across five large schools.
My favorite quote from the distribution was when one teacher said to her students, “People from across an ocean made these for you so that you could come to school and learn. Do you see how special you are???”
Do you see how special you are!
Truly this is the message.
You are special.
You are loved.
You are valuable.
You are smart.
You are capable.
You can learn.
You can do great things.
In the development world, there’s a common saying, “educate girls to change the world,” and we fully believe it.
These girls deserve all of our support and cheers and admiration because they are doing it. They are staring down life in the best way they know how and with the right tools in their hand and affirmation in their hearts, we have no doubt that they will go far and change their world in ways that only they can.
While we are thrilled with the initial 600 kit distribution, we know that there are thousands and thousands of girls right next door who would absolutely benefit from the same support. The only way to blanket the region and reach all of these girls is to increase rate of production which means we need more sewers and supporters to join in this dedicated effort.
For more information on how you can be a part of this incredible outreach to girls, please drop us a line here via our contact page, or connect with the Days for Girls Spokane, Washington group via their facebook page.