Sustainable hygiene kits help girls in developing nations miss fewer school days
Calgary Journal reporter Devyn Ens reflects on the Calgary chapter of Days for Girls and their sew-a-thon held Oct. 9.
Females in many parts of the world lack access to sanitary products such as pads, tampons, and menstrual cups to use during their periods.
A group of Calgarians has banded together to tackle the problem, working under the umbrella of the American-based charity Days for Girls.
The local Days for Girls group provides handmade reusable fabric pads, along with underwear, soap, Ziploc bags, a washcloth and moisture barrier shields. All products are placed in a visually pleasing yet discreet bag for users to take with them to school and work.
Organizer Donna Leuw became involved with Days for Girls a year ago, after seeing a small display advertising the organization at Creative Stitches, an annual sewing and craft trade show.
“I had already been considering doing something like this,” Leuw said, “but I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, I didn’t know where to start, so basically in my mind I had a checklist of things that had to be checked off in order for me to sign on with another organization.”
Leuw’s list included a “user friendly” system, where anyone could be involved on some level. The charity had to be tax deductible in Canada, there had to be income opportunities for the people directly affected by the issue, and she wanted independent proof outside of the organization that help was being given to the people in need.
“This is something that affects every woman, every woman in the world, so we as women, we just feel compelled to help our sisters,”- Donna Leuw
Leuw found that Days for Girls met all of her criteria. In an email to Leuw from Chantelle McIver, director of the Niger Vocational Training Centre in Niamey, Niger, McIver told her that “our girls have been using Days for Girls products for over a year and they are so impressed with them that they want to learn how to make them so they can sell them to women in their own community.”
Leuw began making the kits at home, and started the Calgary branch of Days for Girls.
The branch has been hugely successful.
“We’re getting people from all over Calgary, every walk of life, both women and men have jumped on board, all ages, all backgrounds, all religions, they’re just so eager to help,” Leuw said.
“It’s been like a runaway train; I’ve never done anything like this, and sometimes it felt like it was just going way too fast, because the response has just been incredible.”
There are monthly gatherings of people interested in sewing and putting together the kits. The majority of the volunteers are women who are heavily involved and interested in sewing and crafting already. They often donate their leftover materials, such as fabric and thread, and encourage others to do the same.
Volunteer Joy Gregory said the response from the community has been overwhelming.
“You just basically have anywhere from three to five hours where you sit and sew and visit with other women,” Gregory said.
“What I was really moved by one of the times I sewed, was the broad age group of women participating, so from 10-year-old girls that are folding panties, to great- grandmothers, who came in with their sewing machines on their walkers.”
“It’s such a simple thing in some ways, that we just go and you basically give your time, you don’t even have to take your own sewing machine, you don’t have to take your own fabric and thread, that’s all donated as well. So for people who sew a lot, we always end up with a lot of stuff that’s kind of left over so that’s perfect.”
Gregory said the Days for Girls initiative and the support behind it helps destigmatize menstruation, which she said causes girls to be seen as impure or dirty, even in the global north.
“The reality is that without feminine hygiene products, these girls cannot go to school,” Gregory said.
Linda Guzha, the Days for Girls director in Zimbabwe, testified to the truth of Gregory’s remark.
“I am among thousands of girls in Zimbabwe who suffered during high school days,” Guzha said. “I used to hate my period. It meant l had to choose between humiliation of managing a period with no resources at school, or stay at home.”
“Most of the time l would end up using newspaper which used to give me rashes. l was very scared of messing my uniform cause it had happened to me and to others and the boys in our class laughed at us. We would stop going for awhile. It seriously interrupted our learning.”
Guzha said her experiences as a girl led to her making Days for Girls her passion.
All of the products made by the Calgary Days for Girls volunteers have to meet strict quality standards, to ensure that the kits last for at least three years.
Chantelle McIver’s Niger Vocational Training Centre in Niamey, Niger works directly with Days for Girls, which provides sanitary products to be distributed to the school’s students during their health education classes.
The school opened in 2010 with 60 students, who learn skills in nutrition, sewing, embroidery, literacy, French, sexuality (including menstruation), and maternal and newborn health during a three-year program.
“Niger is one of the worst countries in the world for undereducated girls.” McIver said.
According to indexmundi.com, roughly half of the population in Niger is under the age of 15. Niger has one of the highest fertility rates in the world, with an average of just over seven births per woman, and the 11th highest maternal mortality rate, with 820 deaths per 100,000 live births.
According to the Days for Girls International website, girls in impoverished nations can miss up to two months of school each year because they do not have a sustainable option for sanitary products during their menstrual cycle.
I personally visited a Days for Girls sew-a-thon in Calgary, Alta. on Oct 9. The small community of women who had shown up to offer their skills to the organization immediately invited me into their space, and graciously humoured me as I asked them questions and snapped photos of their handiwork.
Roxanne Silvaniuk had participated in four previous sewing meetings, and said 80 people had shown up to the first one she attended.
“I think it’s really a shame that something like a period would keep a girl out of school,” Silvaniuk said.
I went around to all of the various workstations, chatting with the women about why they came to the event, how they had gotten involved in the event, and answering questions about myself.
After I had made my way around the room a few times, the group gave me a task, first ironing and folding drawstrings to be used in the carrying bags, and then sewing and finishing the drawstrings.
I had taken home economics classes during my junior high education, but that was seven years ago. I found very few opportunities to showcase my sewing skills since then. Still, they set me up on a sewing machine, gave me a quick rundown of how it worked, and then left me to my own devices.
My first effort was terrible, and I was not offended when my supervisor chuckled and suggested I move on to the next one. I fumbled my way through about half a dozen drawstrings, feeling guilty about wasting materials with my under qualified skills, but I was reassured my efforts weren’t going to be thrown in the reject pile.
If your sewing skills are on the same level as mine, there are other ways to get involved with Days for Girls.
The website, daysforgirls.org, has donation buttons on every page. $10 sponsors the creation of a kit, $220 can sponsor a classroom, and $2,500 helps jumpstart an in-country sewing cooperative, which directly helps the women in that nation. There are no minimum requirements for financial donations, and you can request for your donation to go to a specific initiative as well. All donations are 100 per cent tax deductible.
Days for Girls founder Celeste Mergens also has an Etsy page dedicated to selling the work of the Days for Girls Uganda chapter and directly benefitting them. The cosmetics company Revlon has also partnered with Days for Girls to support women’s health issues.
The charity accepts unneeded fabric and thread as well as unused sewing machines, and volunteers can also donate their time at monthly meetings, either sewing or helping out in other ways.
Calgary organizer Donna Leuw expressed the motivation driving her and her fellow volunteers.
“This is something that affects every woman, every woman in the world, “she said. “So we as women, we just feel compelled to help our sisters.”
- By Devyn Ens