Editor’s note: This story was written by Bethany Bogacki, Operation Smile Student Programs Content Producer, and U-Voice student storyteller Lexi Rector, a junior at Virginia Tech who has been involved with Operation Smile since she was an elementary school student in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Around the table of people measuring, cutting and sewing cloth, Omex stood out – and not just because he was a man in a room full of women and girls.
It was the loving way that Omex helped his 12-year-old daughter, Stella, as she put together her reusable sanitary pad during the women’s health workshop at Operation Smile’s July 2018 medical mission in Blantyre, Malawi.
“I was really touched by the father and daughter,” said Tonya Prinsloo, the chaperone of Operation Smile’s student volunteers from South Africa. “There were only three men in total at the project, and to see him take the time to help his daughter was really moving.”
This women’s health workshop was the brainchild of Operation Smile, Days for Girls, the Nourish Collective, and Sew Dignified. These organizations are cut from the same cloth and share common threads: They’re global, volunteer-driven nonprofits delivering solutions that empower people in developing countries. Operation Smile provides safe, effective surgical care at no cost for people born with cleft conditions. Days for Girls boosts access to the education and resources that every woman needs for good menstrual health. The Nourish Collective and Sew Dignified chapters in the United States rally volunteers who put together kits that provide all the necessary menstrual health products.
Working together, these organizations aim to provide women attending Operation Smile medical missions – whether they’re patients or their caregivers – with the opportunity to create their own reusable pads and learn the skills needed to take care of them.
Two workshops were offered at the shelter that Operation Smile provided for its patients and their families during the Blantyre mission. Operation Smile student volunteers used Days for Girls training materials to instruct the participants, and the Nourish Collective and Sew Dignified donated the reusable pad kits filled with the instructions and necessary materials.
“It has been incredibly meaningful – I think just the fact that we could help these women,” Tonya said. “We aren’t just giving them something, we are showing them how to do something that they can make themselves and continue to make in the future.”
Omex and Stella were among the 100-plus people who took part in Blantyre workshop. Stella made her pad before she had surgery for her bottom lip.
In fact, so many participants attended the workshops that the local chapter of Girl Guides – the equivalent of the Girl Scouts in the United States – joined in the effort and provided more cloth, thread and other materials.
Gertrude of the Girl Guides said it’s important to support these workshops because it’s important for women to have these reusable pads. Often, it’s the difference between whether or not a young woman misses a week of school.
A pack of five reusable pads costs 700 Malawian Kwacha – or about $1 – and many women across the country can’t afford it, Gertrude said. Instead, they wash and reuse pieces of old blankets and cloth.
But, as Gertrude explained, by doing so, many end up getting a little bulge on their backside, and out of embarrassment of everyone knowing that they are menstruating, many stay home that week. For younger women, menstruation makes them a target for teasing by the boys in their school because, from the male perspective, Gertrude said, nobody is supposed to know menstruation is happening. The embarrassment leads to many young women skipping school, which puts them behind, she said.
“Boys need to understand,” Gertrude said, so the Girl Guides are working with men and boys to teach them about menstruation as well.
Embarrassment also affects the way the women clean their pads or cloth, she said. Women should wash the material with hot water and soap, then line dry outside where the material not only dries quicker, but the sun’s heat kills the germs; many, though, line dry their pads inside the house, so no one can see them, Gertrude said. When they dry inside the house, the cloth is susceptible to viruses and germs and often isn’t completely dry for the next time they use it. Coupled together, these factors contribute women getting sick, Gertrude said.
“When I heard about what a lot of women use today instead of a sanitary pad, it just made me realize how fortunate we are and how we shouldn’t take what we have for granted. It’s such a basic human right that we take for granted,” Tonya said.
It’s a basic human right that, together, Operation Smile, Days for Girls, the Nourish Collective and Sew Dignified are folding into medical programs across the African continent. As the medical mission was beginning to unfold in Malawi, Operation Smile student volunteers from South Africa carried held the women’s health workshop during the medical mission in neighboring Mozambique.
The students – Reza-Astrid Fourie and Sakeenah Kerbelker of Stellenbosch University – even put on workshops back home in Cape Town to prepare for the medical mission.
“We held four workshops locally in order to familiarize ourselves as well as teach the women of our community who needed (the training),” Sakeenah said. “We then planned to take this on a mission and used the knowledge gained from our local workshops, such as the time take to made one pad. We pre-cut the materials and purchased sewing supplies and took those along.”
At the site in Quelimane, Mozambique, the students and their sponsor, Wendy Bradshaw, worked with four women every day and taught them how to create their own reusable pad. At the end of the workshop, they gave each participant a kit, complete with two pad holders, inserts, soap and underwear.
What makes this workshop so powerful, Sakeenah said, is that the women walk away with more than a reusable pad – they walk away with the knowledge of how to create more as they need them.
“The reusable sanitary pad project is so much more than just providing pads to those who need it,” Reza-Astrid and Sakeenah wrote after their experience. “It is empowerment, faces of accomplishment and pride in one’s work, it is a classroom, a friendship group and an opportunity to connect with those in a similar situation to you.”