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Tailor-Made in Uganda

By  August 10, 2009

Armed with needle and thread, Carrie-Jane Williams helps Ugandan girls stay in school.

In the small Ugandan town of Kitengesa, it is estimated that girls miss up to one week of school every month simply because of their periods. So, when 25-year-old Carrie-Jane Williams gave a kit of reusable sanitary pads to a group of female students at Kitengesa Comprehensive Secondary School, it’s not surprising that they were happy. In fact, the girls started—literally—to dance for joy in the schoolyard.

Kitengesa is a trading centre located about two hours south of the capital, Kampala, in the Masaka District of Uganda. It has a number of banana plantations and several dirt roads that connect the town to smaller, surrounding villages. Students sometimes walk on these roads for two hours to get to schools in Kitengesa. It is here that Williams, a master’s student focusing on literacy and international development at The University of British Columbia (UBC), completed a volunteer placement at the community library.

Williams, a native of St. John's Newfoundland, explains that most students in the area are poor and have trouble paying their school fees. Menstrual pads are generally not affordable for the average family. “When they’re on their periods they can’t afford to buy actual disposable pads, which are about 2000 Ugandan shillings per package—roughly CAD$1. The money for that is not a priority because they need food, water and batteries for radios or lights. So, in the past, a lot of them have used things like leaves and old rags.” For girls who get their periods while at school, there are no resources like private bathrooms or running water to clean themselves. As a result, many girls stay home.

The issue of girls missing school when they are menstruating is not unique to Kitengesa, or even Uganda, but the solution Williams proposed is novel. While most other projects have focused on supplying disposable or reusable pads from abroad, Williams’ goal was to actually get women in Uganda to make the pads themselves. She hoped to not only fulfill a need, but also to help the women create a sustainable business in the process.

When Williams first accepted a volunteer position in Uganda, it wasn’t related to reusable pads at all.  In fact, it was supposed to be simply an English-teaching placement arranged by UBC’s Go Global programme. But Williams took an active role in shaping her assignment and, through research and planning, she transformed it into something greater before she even left Vancouver.

Williams had been reading about menstruation as a barrier to education. Specifically, she read a thesis by Dr. Shelly Jones, a student of her supervisor, about girls’ education in Uganda. Williams was struck by an interview Jones had done, where a young Ugandan girl asked about women in Canada. Williams explains, “One of the girls, after she felt comfortable with her [Jones], asked her, ‘What’s it like in Canada? Do girls miss school because they’re on their periods, too?’ It was pretty powerful stuff.”

At a meeting with Jones and Dan Ahimbisibwe, Jones’ Ugandan research assistant, Williams explained that she’d like to address the problem when she went to Uganda by bringing some reusable pads. Williams says Jones asked her, “What happens if we don’t have enough to give them to everyone?” After thinking about it for a moment, Williams responded: “What if they can produce them themselves?”

The girls started to dance around the schoolyard, chanting “Oh thank you, mzungu, this will help so much!”

The three agreed on a plan and connected with Suzanne Siemens, the co-owner and co-founder of Lunapads, a Vancouver-based reusable pad company. Lunapads offered to put together kits of pads and liners, plus nylon pouches that they can be washed in. The company also posted information on their website encouraging their customers to make donations to the project. Using the money gathered from Lunapads’ customers, as well as other donations, Williams was able to bring 50 kits.

Williams set off for Uganda in September 2008. During her three-month stay, she lived at a UBC residence located right next to the Kitengesa Comprehensive Secondary School. She had her own room with a bed and a mosquito net, but there was no electricity, and running water was only available during the rainy season. In comparison to where the locals lived, Williams says, it was a mansion. But, compared to her Canadian home, it was basic. Williams did her best to adapt, and jumped into her volunteer position.

In Kitengesa, one of the first things Williams did was arrange a meeting with the 14 girls Jones focused on in her research—all of whom had already graduated and moved on. Williams felt like she already knew the girls after reading about them in Jones’ thesis, and she wanted them to have the kits first, since they were her inspiration for the project,  They met at the community library, along with the girls’ parents, and Williams introduced herself. She gave them each a kit, explained how they worked and answered questions. “They loved it, they were super pumped,” she says. “They wanted two and three kits each. They wanted to share them with their mothers, their sisters—everybody. But, unfortunately, there weren’t enough for that.”

Williams also knew she didn’t have enough kits to give to all the girls in the school. After consulting with one of her students, she decided to give them to the girls in the last year of secondary school, with the hopes that it would help them keep their attendance high so they could ultimately pass their exams. “So one day at lunch my student called all the Secondary Four girls around and they were there in a flash. They were asking 'what does this white girl'—or mzungu, as they called me—'want with us?'” Williams laughs as she tells the story. “The girls finally settled down and I said, ‘It has come to my attention that you miss a lot of school when you’re on your period, sometimes a week every month.’ And they said to me, ‘Oh yes, mzungu, you’re right, you have no idea'…they really let me have it.”

She continues, “I have an idea. I have something to give you, and I want you to try it. If you like it, then hopefully there’s a project where I can get you a lot more.” Williams pulled out a kit, explained how to use it, and then she braced for their reaction: The girls started to dance around the schoolyard, chanting “Oh thank you, mzungu, this will help so much!”

What’s it like in Canada? Do girls miss school because they’re on their periods, too?

Williams was pleased, but she was nearing the end of her stay in Uganda and still needed to get the next stage of the project off the ground—the production of the pads. For this, she went to Tekera, about half an hour away by boda-boda (motorcycle taxi), where Canadians Bruce and Brigitte Daley run a resource centre with a primary school, clinic, women’s craft group and various agricultural projects. At the resource centre, she met Sonia Klumpp and Pauls Grinvalds, both graduates of McGill University who were volunteering there. The three were getting to know each other and swapping volunteer stories when Williams said, “You know what? You guys have tailors, you have craftsmen, you have sewing machines. I wonder, would your women be interested in making these?”

Williams and Klumpp consulted two of the tailor women, who thought the kits were a good idea. They asked the women, “Do you think you can make this?" And then, like in the schoolyard, the two tailors started to dance for joy in the middle of the clinic.

After regaining their composure, the group looked around to see what materials they had available and found a piece of black fleece that had been brought from Canada. “They sat down with the material, they traced a pad out with chalk, cut it out really carefully, sat down at the sewing machine and analyzed the product a little bit… And sure enough, 15 minutes later they had reproduced this thing. It wasn’t perfect, of course, it was just a first try, but we were almost in tears thinking 'This is going to work, we can do this.'”

Meanwhile, they brought in the nurse from the on-site clinic and discussed the importance of education as an integral part of the pad programme. Nurse Ritah took the opportunity to bring in primary school girls, right then and there, to discuss menstruation, as well as other sex-related issues that they would face in coming years.

Williams was due to return to Canada, and Klumpp and Grinvalds agreed to continue the project after she left. Seeing that the tailors were capable of producing the kits, Klumpp and Grinvalds bought materials from Kampala—fabric, buttons, thread and elastic—with the idea of reducing donor dependency and supporting the local economy. According to Williams, it took time to work out some of the kinks in the project, like what kind of thread to use and which materials work best. “The biggest challenge there was figuring out how we’re going to get the materials, and how to distribute the pads in a way that’s not intrusive. So, it took a lot of planning, a lot of thinking, a lot of talking… But it’s been pretty straightforward and it’s going pretty well. It’s only been going on since November, but so far, so good.”

And since then, the project has made significant headway. Kate Parry, a professor at  Hunter College who has worked in Kitengesa and has a house there, has offered to let Klumpp and Grinvalds live there while they continue their work. The pair have rented a workspace in the centre of town and have bought more sophisticated sewing equipment. They’ve hired two tailors and one tailoring assistant: three young women just out of tailoring school who were having trouble finding jobs. The trio works five days a week making the pads. They’ve even started selling the product to women’s groups in the area for product testing. At this point, they are trying to get as much feedback as possible about the product before approaching secondary schools.

The group has also made a valuable connection with a Dutch investor who, after hearing about the initiative—dubbed The Afri-Pad project—agreed to invest 2000 Euros toward the pilot project—which, among other things, will allow them to hire a social or health care worker who will explain how to use the pads and counsel girls on other sexual health issues . The six-month pilot project is currently underway and will include research, development and an assessment phase where they will evaluate product distribution, sales and quality. The Dutch investor is waiting to see the results of the pilot, with the hope of investing in future phases of the project, like taking Afri-Pads nationwide.

While this team works to get the business off the ground, they’re sticking to the objective Williams started out with when she first went to Uganda: to increase girls’ attendance rates at school. It’s too soon to measure the success of the programme, but the fact that they’ve started production is encouraging. Williams knows of no other programme in Africa where locals are producing pads themselves.

Williams will be graduating in this summer and plans to be a full-time teacher with the Vancouver School Board. She’s pleased with her contribution, and waits anxiously to hear news from Klumpp and Grinvalds. She says success will ultimately mean Ugandans being able to take over the project using their own knowledge, practices and abilities not relying on donations. “Hopefully they can self-sustain. If the project really gets off the ground, and people are really interested in it and people really see the benefits of it, then maybe people will start to buy them… And the biggest dream is to actually have a little factory and to have Lunapads Uganda or East Africa and call it Afri-Pads and serve the whole country and the East African community.”

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency.

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Published in Volunteer Abroad
Andrea Gourgy

Originally from Montreal, Andrea has a hard time staying in one place. After gaining a BA from Western and a Masters in Journalism from the University of Southern California, Andrea hit the road and never looked back. She has worked professionally as a journalist in six different countries, and earned several travel writing awards in the process. Andrea joined the Verge team in 2006.

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