I’ve been a model for 13 years. In my work, it’s not uncommon to hear someone on set mumbling, “we’re not saving lives here.” The rat race of making money to spend money had been eating away at me for a while and I longed for a higher sense of purpose and fulfillment. You know that feeling when you want to feel more, do more, be more? Well, I found that feeling while volunteering in Zambia with a community outreach and education program run by Game Rangers International (GRI). Jeni Jack, who heads the program, showed me her world of making a difference and changing the lives of other women.
The evening before I left for a multi-month volunteering adventure with GRI, my mom and I stumbled across Days for Girls online. Days for Girls is a grassroots NGO that strives to create a more dignified, free, and educated world through access to reusable feminine hygiene solutions. I wanted to take something with me on my trip that I could teach in the schools or to women’s groups, and the feminine hygiene kits powered by Days for Girls couldn’t have been a better fit.
Traditionally, women in Zambian communities use folded fabric or cotton wool flattened into their underwear to manage their periods. These simple, unhygienic, and inefficient feminine care products often lead to girls to miss up to five days of school per month to tend to their periods. Moreover, the cultural taboo surrounding periods had kept women quiet on the topic, and prevented them from finding better solutions. That’s where Days for Girls comes in! The initiative teaches women to construct kits consisting of reusable menstrual pads and liners that can be washed and reused for up to three years, and dry quickly so that girls can reuse the same products multiple times in one period. The organization also provides a curriculum for health education within local communities.
Jeni and I debuted the Days for Girls kits with a women’s group in the Mukambi Community (AZIMAI), situated in the heart of the Kafue National Park. Since my mom was a designer and seamstress, I enlisted her to make a sample and downloaded all the patterns and information on how to sew the kits from their website. As we explained the project to the women in the community and showed them finished products in the kits, the level of energy and excitement in the room was palpable.
Luckily, one of leaders in the group, Mabel, is a highly proficient seamstress, and picked up the patterns and design straight away. The very next day, the ladies were gathered under the trees with Mabel delegating and teaching the other women how to create the reusable menstrual pads contained in the kit. Overnight, a full assembly line of cutting and sewing was already taking place.
When I spoke to the women about their past period experiences, I got a better understanding of just how expensive and difficult it is to get sanitary pads. In rural communities in Zambia the average salary is K800 while a package of 8 sanitary napkins costs around K150, even assuming a woman in the AZIMAI community could afford pads, she’d have to travel two hours into the nearest town to get them. Moreover, girls are not taught about menstruation in schools. It’s common for girls to try to hide their periods — even from their families — out of embarrassment.
The AZIMAI women’s group main goal is to create a sense of empowerment and to become self-sufficient earners within their households. When Jeni and I told Days for Girls about our success in the AZIMAI community and the enthusiastic reception of their kits, they offered us a chance to turn this small women’s group in the middle of Zambia into a micro-enterprise, sewing kits to create a self-supporting business that services nearby communities. Doing so would allow many more women and girls in Zambia to receive reusable menstrual kits and, in turn allow for uninterrupted work and school days, and wider spread education. These women would also know for the first time in their lives what it’s like to earn their own money.
It’s hard to even imagine putting my day-to-day life on hold because of my menstrual cycle. It reinforces how very fortunate I am to have always had access to feminine hygiene, but that’s not the case in many parts of the world. Women in Zambia are strong and driven, but oftentimes their periods prevented them from pursuing a formal education and kept them out of the workforce for a portion of every month. Thanks to this project, women in the AZIMAI community can use their menstrual kits for up to three years, and have found an amazing new enterprise educating peers about menstrual and sexual health and creating kits to provide to other communities.
Please do check out LOLA - where my article originally appeared.