On a mission to end period stigma and poverty

Sunday January 6 2019

Lucy Odiwa produces affordable re-usable

Lucy Odiwa produces affordable re-usable sanitary towels, so that girls and women in rural areas who cannot afford to buy disposable pads can have access to the pads rather than use unhygienic materials. PHOTOI WORLD BANK WEBSITE. 

By Stella Barozi

Lucy Odiwa, the owner of a Tanga-based micro-enterprise, WomenChoice Industries, was over the moon last year when she received an email informing her that her enterprise had won the global SDGs and Her Competition.

Over 1,200 entries from 88 countries had been submitted and hers won first place.

Co-sponsored by the World Bank Group, the Wharton School Zicklin Center, UNDP, and UN Women, the contest recognises women micro-entrepreneurs helping to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

WomenChoice Industries is geared towards empowering girls and women in rural Tanzania by promoting menstrual health hygiene management.

“WomenChoice Industries is a pro-women social enterprise which aims at reducing social physiological distress in women. We make re-usable sanitary towels to promote menstrual health hygiene management,” says the mother of two.

The fact that menstruation is surrounded by taboo, viewed as shameful and less talked about, is what prompted Lucy to do something to help girls and women. Her first menstrual experience is not something she would wish anyone to go through.

Apart from what she had briefly learnt in school, Lucy did not know much about menstruation. Neither did she have the products to use when she got her first period.

She was 16 and in Form Three at Asumbi Girls High School in Western Kenya’s Homa Bay District when it happened.

“We were in class during Mathematics lesson and I was supposed to answer a question. When I got up I felt something thick and wondered why I was wet. Then my classmates started giggling,” recalls Lucy.

When she proceeded to the blackboard, a girl suddenly walked her out, telling her to go and change. Surprised, Lucy asked her what she meant. The girl told her she had stained her skirt.

“I was shocked! I was literally trembling,” Lucy recalls.

As she headed to the washroom, she had no idea what she was going to do. Being in boarding school, the first thing she did was pull someone’s socks from the clothes line. The socks served as her pad.

Back in class, Lucy became unusually quiet. She did not know what was happening and what was going to happen next. After classes, she approached a girl who gave her a pad, which she used that night.

Because the pad did not have much blood in the morning, Lucy continued wearing it that day. The flow got heavier in the afternoon so she threw the pad away.

“That week, people’s socks just disappeared because that was the only solution that I had. I was just tearing anything that I came across.”

Lucy sighed with relief when the period stopped on the fifth day and thanked God because as she puts it, those five days were hell.

Women Choice Industries

Lucy who is a clinical officer by profession, used to volunteer with various NGOs in Tanga, where she used to meet young girls who had not started menstruating.

“I realised that the community in Tanga was not different from the community which I grew up in. Girls were not prepared for menstruation. When it happened for the first time, many went through a difficult time just like I did. I started having small talks with girls. Some knew nothing about periods and some had just heard about it in school.”

Lucy wanted to prepare girls for their first menstrual experience. What they learn in class is not enough to equip them with the necessary information about periods. She started by talking with a few girls, telling them what to expect and what to do.

“I told them to ask for help from anyone close. I did not ask for help because I was shy and scared and didn’t know what was happening to me.”

She established WomenChoice industries in 2016. Armed with only Sh200,000, Lucy bought two used sewing machines. With the help of two tailors, she produced reusable menstrual pads namely Salama pads, so that girls could have them ready for their first periods.

Targeting first-timers

“I was targeting first-timers because I wanted them to have something that would prepare them for their first menstrual experience. I wanted them to not only have information but also products and services,” Lucy says.

A pack containing five pads sells at Sh5,000. If well taken care of, Lucy says these pads can last for up to three years. Unlike the disposable ones that have a sell-by-date, Lucy’s pads can prepare a girl as early as seven years as they would still be in good shape if the girl got her period five years later.

WomenChoice targets women and girls from poor households in rural Tanzania. These women can’t afford to buy disposable sanitary towels every month. “Menstruation is very costly but it is a cost that has not been brought to light. Reusable pads are a healthy solution to those who can’t afford to buy disposable pads,” says Lucy.

Lucy realised that even those who had already started menstruating faced challenges. They use unhygienic materials.

“We have gone to places where women fill sand on the mats they sleep on at night to avoid staining themselves. Some use tree barks, cow dung or sisal, which they put under a piece of kanga to absorb blood. They can’t afford a thick piece of kanga every month.”

Most use worn out kangas, which Lucy says they never hang outside in the sun to dry.

“They have been told that no one should see these kangas. But we know that the sun has UV rays that do the sanitisation. For these women, my aim is to give them the right information, that menstruation is not something to be ashamed of. It’s a woman’s source of dignity, pride and the basis of reproduction.”

Lucy mentions social stigma as another challenge as girls are subjected to ridicule when menstruation happens in school. She says 80 per cent of girls have their first period at school, which catches many unaware.

A lot of girls miss school during menstruation, some up to five days a week every month. Such girls cannot compete with boys who are in school all the time. But with reusable sanitary towels, a girl is assured of a constant supply of pads all year through.

WomenChoice involves men in menstrual hygiene management because menstruation is not a women only issue. Men need to know that menstruation is a normal biological process and therefore should not be a source of ridicule and harassment, says Lucy.

WomenChoice goes to schools in Tanga District and surrounding communities where they talk to girls and boys. “Women in some cultures are taught that it is a taboo for a man to see their menstrual blood. We incorporate men to educate them that this blood is just like any other bodily fluid.”

Lucy says winning the SDGS competition means a lot to her. “It means that whatever initiative we are taking is appreciated by society.”

Although she entered the competition with a dream to win, being the first place champion was beyond her wildest dreams. “I did not think of it. I don’t know how it came to be. I believe every participant had something good to put to the table and being given the opportunity to carry the winning trophy, I think they gave women and girls in Tanzania the opportunity to be served,” she concludes.

Email: snjunwa@gmail.com