by Megan Stacey
For many women in Canada, it’s almost inconceivable that a monthly period could be more than a minor inconvenience.
Keep us home from work? Not likely.
Keep our daughters home from school? Not more than a day here or there.
But what if it wasn’t so easy to pop over to the pharmacy and find rows of feminine hygiene products?
For millions of young women in less developed countries, menstruating stops life in its tracks. It means staying home and using leaves or other materials as a sort of make-shift pad. School, in many cases, is out of the question.
Allison Karnes just couldn’t accept that reality.
“I was reading this book and there was this section that talked about girls in Africa missing so much school because they don’t have any pads. It just leapt off the page,” said Allison, who’s from the States. “I had never thought about that before.”
Though statistics on this topic are scarce, there is a lot of anecdotal data to show that girls are missing school thanks to their periods. One study showed that more than 40 per cent of schoolgirls in northern Ethiopia reported missing school because of menstruation in the past month.
Even in places where feminine hygiene products are available, they are prohibitively expensive.
Allison was living in Ethiopia – her husband is Dr. Mark Karnes, who performs surgeries to correct prolapsed uteruses, another project to which MWAHFE directs funds – when she had the idea to make reusable pads. She decided this was the perfect way to make a difference.
After pitching the idea to others and picking the brain of a friend doing a similar project in Kenya, WRAPS was born.
Allison and her right-hand woman, Inge, hired a team of Ethiopian women to help sew and develop the washable, reusable, affordable pads (WRAPS).
“It was hard. We worked and worked and worked to get our design. We made it from scratch. We made a lot of bad pads,” Allison said with a laugh. “We finally feel like we hit upon a pretty good pad.”
It took a lot of trial and error – starting with some market research and buying pads sold in Ethiopia.
“We looked at what they had on the market, and cut it to that length and width,” she said. “We added little tabs…and I import all the Velcro from the U.S. But that’s easy to bring in, because it’s so light.”
WRAPS are made of simple materials, including Ethiopian flannel and dollar store shower curtains that Allison buys in the U.S. The pads even incorporate unused surgical towels that Dr. Mark and other doctors have in their pre-op kits but may not use.
“I was walking across the hospital compound one day, and saw these blue towels floating in the wind. I’m always on the lookout for materials that might work,” Allison said with a chuckle.
WRAPS are changing lives, starting with the six women who found employment through the project.
All have returned to school – at levels from Grade 3 to post-secondary – and are finding fulfillment through their work. Some of the women have heart-breaking life stories, and one was even rescued from the sex trade.
And of course the impact extends to the young women who receive the pads.
“WRAPS is a really critical piece of support for women and young girls in Ethiopia, because they often don’t have other resources to be able to manage menstrual cycles. That limits the activities they can do, especially as it relates to school and functioning within the family during that time,” said Tracey Hedges, the WRAPS project lead for Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia.
“That impacts on their self-esteem and their self-worth. Being able to offer such a simple intervention – by North American standards – has such a huge impact on their daily lives,” Tracey added.
The goal is to distribute the kits to young women.
“We’re looking at primarily Grade 5 through Grade 8. We feel if we can capture the girls at the middle school level, and keep them in school, we have a better chance of getting them to high school,” Allison said.
“We really want to work with the younger girls, because that’s where the dropout rate is so high.”
A WRAPS kit – which costs donors about $15 – includes several washable pads and a pair of underwear inside a small cloth bag.
“A small amount of money has such a significant impact on their physical health, their emotional well-being, and their ability to continue to function in their daily lives,” Tracey said.
All that for just $15 – what a return on investment!
Of course the WRAPS venture hasn’t been without challenges.
Last summer, Allison and her team hit a huge roadblock after her daughter tested out the WRAPS kit.
“She said the pads were just beautiful and washed up just fantastic – no blood stains, they don’t stain, they’re just beautiful – but they’re not holding the moisture. She said ‘I’m leaking right through.’ That was a horror, as you can imagine,” Allison said.
“I fell apart and had a meltdown. All my girls were sobbing with me.”
It turned out that workers had substituted one of the waterproof materials with another, more permeable, one.
But Allison’s partner Inge was undeterred.
“She’s like ‘well, we’ll just remake them all.’ So we remade…3,000 pads this summer,” Allison said. “(Now) I know these pads are not going to leak. I’m confident that they’re the best we can make.”
And the program is still growing. Allison’s goal is to eventually return to the communities where they’ve distributed pads to talk with the young women and their families to ask about the WRAPS and if they’re making a difference.
Tracey is confident that this project is more than worthy of donations from MWAHFE.
“For those young girls who have the option or ability to go to school, we need to really support and encourage them in that. For them to have to miss school because of a normal bodily function is just really a shame,” she said.
“Allison is on a roll….I can’t wait to see where it goes.”
It’s just one more way that Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia is able to support women and children in Ethiopia.
“To be able to support them in continuing their education, so they can go on in their education and develop into good leaders and pursue their goals is just amazing,” Tracey said.
“That’s the impact that such a small item can make on their lives.”