We recently connected with our longtime Pads4Girls colleague Rachel Starkey to learn about the impact that the Transformation Textiles (TT) Malawi pilot project is having one year later. This is a cheerful story of perseverance and genuine social impact.
Rachel is one of our most treasured compatriots in the MHM (menstrual health management) field, a true pioneer and fearless "heretic to the status quo". Transformation Textile's magic lies in its ability to transform fabric waste into size-adjustable underwear and washable pads, providing an innovative solution to MHM needs while significantly reducing landfill waste.
Following a visit with Rachel in Egypt in 2012 where she and I designed the undies, Lunapads agreed to participate in a pilot program where Rachel would make 10,000 "Dignity Kits" that each included 2 tie-on undies, 2 leak-proof shields and 6 absorbent liners. Thanks to many generous donors to our Pads4Girls Malawi campaign (Danielle LaPorte among them!) Lunapads contributed over two thousand kits for this pilot.
Designing and making the tie-ons was the easy part: creating a new category of exportable “new products reclaimed from textile waste” - as Rachel needed to do to be able to legally export them duty free - would take years of changing mindsets in the textile industry, establishing quality standards, and lobbying Egyptian customs officials. Rachel's years of perseverance prevailed and many unsung heroes made this a reality.
Determined to prove the concept, Rachel would show factory managers where underwear or pads could fit inside the “neck-holes” of existing production orders that were about to be cut and thrown away. She convinced 5 factories to cut the pieces, and then began manufacturing them on a dedicated production line at her factory, Cotton Tales, in Alexandria.
Following delays due to bureaucracy and political unrest in Egypt, thanks to Rachel's perseverance, the kits finally reached Malawi in 2014. The first pilot saw 4379 Kilograms of fabric cuts reclaimed (versus ending in a landfill) making the equivalent of 10,000 Dignity Kits, which filled a 20 foot container with 158 barrels and 163 cartons of reusable products, and extra fabric to make more.
Once the shipment landed in Malawi, Good Hope Ministries took the lead in distributing supplies and delivering menstrual hygiene education and empowerment classes. The need for the menstrual supplies was so great that Good Hope began to give the kits as samples for the girls and women of the community to make more from clean, discarded t-shirts. Good Hope also helped with coordinating kit distributions among four other NGO's: the Jacaranda Foundation, Urunji Child Care Trust (see distribution here), Lifeline Malawi and Urim and Thummin Childcare Trust (see distribution here).
One girl said, “I am a glad with these lessons. We have stayed for a long time in darkness. We followed our grandparent’s culture which have made most girls drop out from school. So we all who have heard these lessons should make use of them she continually said to the young ones’ that they should not hide if they will begin to see menses.”
Here is a story about a student at Mphongo School about the impact of receiving a Dignity Kit and sewing lessons, as told to a Good Hope Ministries volunteer.
"After I distributed the questionnaire papers to women, I then went to search for more girls, and on my way I happen to meet a number of girls who were coming from school, before I introduced myself to them they recognized me and when I gave them the questionnaire to answer the questions, one girl called me aside and told me this, “I have a friend who is not with us here, but this girl stopped going to school because she had no girls kit and when she was doing her monthly period, she dirtied her clothes with the staff and boys started to laugh at her. She was then very shy and she told me that she had stopped going to school because of this. A few months later, I was told that this girl had an affair with a young man and she wanted to get married. I told her not to do this and she told me that she has to get married because she has no way of going back to school. I then told her the lessons that you taught us and I shared her one girl’s kit. She was happy to have received the kit. I also taught her how to sew her own kits, she can now sew her own kits and as I am talking she has gone back to school.” I then asked some other volunteers if they can help me to search for this girl. But when we went to her parent’s home we found that she was still at school. Even her parents were very thankful for they lost hope that their girl would go back to school and they told us that she is working hard in her studies."
There are thousands more stories like this. Awareness of MHM as a meaningful development issue is widespread and growing; however, measuring its impact is still in its early days, and remains largely anecdotal. Anecdotal or not, stories like those above are evidence in our eyes that hygiene supplies are essential and can significantly improve girls health, education and well being. While anecdotal storytelling is not sufficiently valued in mainstream research, stories provide compelling evidence and serve to highlight additional impacts that may not be initially obvious when girls receive the pads. Receiving pads and learning how to use and care for them can often be a springboard to important conversations about personal hygiene, self confidence, reproductive wellness, the risk of transmission of HIV/AIDS and more.
Bless you Rachel for your perseverance; because of you, the future looks brighter for thousands of girls and women around the world!