In the United States, a woman's monthly period is rarely more than a slight inconvenience. In places like the Tigray region of Ethiopia, however, the story is much different. There, many girls face adolescence without information or basic materials like sanitary pads or tampons. Confused and embarrassed, menstruating young women often stay home from school. Through the organization Dignity Period, Freweini Mebrahtu and Washington University anthropologist Lewis Wall are attempting to create a local, sustainable solution to this problem.
CN: Lewis Wall is no stranger to women’s health. As an obstetrician - gynecologist and an anthropologist, for decades Dr. Wall has conducted research, often in developing countries, on health issues like the injuries that can arise from prolonged labor. So, as you might expect, Dr. Wall is totally comfortable talking about women’s reproductive health. However, that’s not always completely true for the rest of us. Think about even the most basic, monthly occurrence – a woman’s period.
LW: I suppose if I asked most American women when was the last time you sat down and had a good heart-to-heart talk about menstruation with the men in your life that there wouldn’t be an awful lot of conversations about that. It’s often an awkward subject between males and females at any age.
CN: This is true in the United States, but it’s even more pronounced in places like Ethiopia, where Dr. Wall has worked in recent years. There, the taboos around women’s periods are deeply engrained.
LW: Ethiopian culture makes this something that is not discussed. The Ethiopian Orthodox religion has a lot of restrictions on menstruating women, very similar to what’s found in orthodox Judaism: they’re excluded from religious activities and so on. It’s a shameful, personal, and embarrassing part of life in many culture, and it is just more so [in Ethiopia].
CN: This taboo about talking about periods isn’t just between men and women. Even between mothers and daughters, in many cases it’s just not something that’s discussed. Especially in rural areas, young women in Ethiopia can face their first periods and have no idea what is happening to them. They also don’t have access to sanitary materials. Did we mention that traditional clothing in Ethiopia is made of white cloth? Now it’s hard enough thinking about going through this at home, but imagine trying to go to school while all this is happening.
LW: The problem is that Ethiopian girls, particularly in rural area, don’t have menstrual hygiene products, so when their period comes on, they skip school. Overtime, it puts them behind their class: they have embarrassing accidents in the classroom, they get teased, they drop out of school, and it’s a real barrier to educating girls and women in that part of the world.
CN: Clearly this is a major problem for young women in Ethiopia who are trying to get an education, but as Dr. Wall sees it, it’s also a problem for the country as a whole.
LW: That’s fifty percent of your brainpower; you can’t ignore fifty percent of your brainpower if you are going to succeed as a country.
CN: One woman who experienced this first-hand is Fraweeny Mebrahtu. Mebrahtu grew up in rural northern Ethiopia, the youngest daughter of eight children. Her mother never told her about periods. Neither did her four older sisters. So, like many young women where she grew up, she and her friends were confused and embarrassed when they reached adolescence. Mebrahtu was able to come to the US for college, where she earned a degree in chemical engineering. But she always wondered about the young women back home. When she eventually returned to Ethiopia, she realized that not much had changed since she was growing up. And she decided to do something about it. Something pretty amazing.
LW: She designed a locally produced, environmentally friendly, reusable menstrual pad, got it patented in Ethiopia, managed to get a $150,000 loan, and built a factory to produce these things.
CN: This factory? It also employs young women – something that not many companies do in Ethiopia. It was after Mebrahtu laid all this incredible groundwork that she crossed paths with Dr. Wall last year. At the time, he was living and working in Ethiopia as a Fulbright scholar
LW: I heard about her through friends at the medical school at Mekelle University, and when I finally met her and saw the product, I was hooked.
CN: Wall and his wife Helen decided to help Fraweeny in any way they could. Even with Mebrahtu’s education and her patent and her simple, ingenious idea to help Ethiopian women, the connections and assistance of a person like Dr. Wall proved helpful.
LW: In some ways—I hate to say it—but as a woman in Ethiopia, although she is talking as loudly as she can, her voice is not always heard. I was a doctor and a male who had the ear of people she had been trying to get the attention of, and together we managed to convince them this was something they needed to take seriously.
CN: These efforts came together in the St. Louis based not-for-profit organization Dignity Period. You can find them at dignityperiod.org.
LW: It’s a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. To help fund this product and this project, we got the ear of the president of Mekelle University, Dr. Kindeya Gebrehiwot, and got him on board. Now we have a three-way partnership: she makes the pads in the factory, we purchase them at cost through the charity, they are going to be distributed at the university as one of its community service projects, and we hope to expand throughout the whole Tigray region and, ultimately, throughout Ethiopia.
CN: The university connection will benefit not only younger girls trying to get an education, but also women who have already made it to the university.
LW: At the university, there are 33,000 students. Most of those are first-time college attendees. They’ve come from rural areas. About 40% of them are female, and they are not affluent. They are rural girls who are getting an education, and the university students have many of the same challenges. One of the things we want to do is make sure the university students are also supplied with products, so that those girls who have gotten into the top tier of education can finish their studies and contribute.
CN: The partnership between the university, Mebrahtu, and Wall goes beyond manufacturing and distributing reusable pads. Remember Dr. Wall is an anthropologist by training, in addition to being a medical doctor. So he and the rest of the team have practical knowledge about how to best learn about and work within Ethiopian culture.
LW: Anthropologists want to know the local rules, so they don’t break them but then figure out what rules might be changed. We have just completed a large ethnographic survey of Tigray using the medical anthropologists at Mekelle University. We’ve done hundreds of interviews about menstrual beliefs, attitudes, and hygienic practices, so we try to understand what is actually going on in the community in order to tailor an education and distribution scheme in accordance with local beliefs and values. We are just starting to analyze that information now, so that’s pretty exciting.
CN: Want to help? Good news. For just a few dollars, you can.
LW: We could certainly use everybody’s support. We’re putting together a kit that includes four of these locally produced, reusable, re-washable menstrual hygiene pads with two pair of underwear, and we’ll include two bars of soap as a way to get rid of the other issues. They should last 18 months, and the cost is $4. If you can imagine transforming a girl’s life for four bucks, that’s cheaper than some of the bad coffee you can get at American coffee bars. We appreciate your support.
CN: Many thanks to Lewis Wall for joining Hold That Thought. For more information, be sure to visit dignityperiod.org. To subscribe to Hold That Thought and hear more of our podcasts, please visit holdthatthought.wustl.edu or search for us iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, or PRX.org. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter. I’m Claire Navarro – thanks for listening.
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