The Pad Project
Almost three years ago, I remember that Shawn and I were in the car on our way to a meeting at Lugulu Hospital when I first read an email from Dinah Geiger, of Western Yearly Meeting’s United Society of Friends Women, with her questions and ideas about what has turned out to be “The Pad Project.” Reusable cloth menstrual pads were a subject that was fairly new to me. Dinah’s email sent me on an interesting journey of learning about yet another challenge commonly faced by girls and women in East Africa, and most parts of the developing world. In spite of the fact that the Kenyan government subsidizes the price of sanitary pads and sometimes distributes free pads in some secondary schools, it is a constant burden for poor women in rural areas to be able to afford pads, so they use whatever they can find, from rags to mattress stuffing and even leaves. Some of the materials they use create as many problems as they solve.
Many times, women simply stay home from work or school or the marketplace. It is not too hard to imagine that if you have to choose between providing for your children or buying pads, most mothers will choose to feed their children. There are frequent stories of girls who will trade sex for pads, and it is a common enough problem that we’ve seen posters warning girls against it, while some men are clearly victimizing vulnerable girls. In 2020, as schools were closed for nine months due to Covid, there was a noticeable rise in teenage pregnancies. I’m sure there were several factors, but the lack of school-supplied sanitary pads was one of them.
Some groups in Kenya began collecting contributions to distribute free pads to girls, but collections are always a very short term solution. The idea of providing reusable cloth pads is a solution that is much more sustainable and empowering. It can really make a life-changing difference. This was the idea with which the Western Yearly Meeting USFW approached us.
Specifically, WYM’s USFW planned to sew washable cloth pads and have the WYM women who were attending the 2020 Joint Triennial Conference bring the pads to Kenya and help distribute them. Together we developed a plan to make hygiene kits for each recipient, and each kit to contain: five cloth pads, two pairs of underwear, zip top bags for carrying clean and soiled pads, body soap, and laundry soap. Washcloths were also part of the original plan, but as they aren’t commonly used here, we repurposed them into laundry soap and clothes pins.
After these initials plans were made, the women of Western Yearly Meeting got to work donating funds and supplies, researching the best pad patterns, and sewing A LOT of cloth pads! It was a huge disappointment to have the Triennial conference cancelled, but the Western USFW women continued on with their plan. While Shawn and I were home in Oregon for Christmas, we received a large black plastic tub stuffed absolutely full of cloth pads lovingly made to share with girls in East Africa! That was one consolation after so many other cancellations and disappointments.
On our return to Kenya, we checked the black tub as one of our pieces of luggage, and soon it arrived with us in Kisumu. The next step was distribution. The tub contained enough pads and underwear to make up fifty kits. We decided that the most practical way to distribute the kits to those with most need was to bring them to Turkana with us when we travelled there. Turkana Friends Mission director John Moru identified a village there with a great deal of need. School was out on break when we visited, but John organized and invited any girls in the area to come for the morning.
After our arrival in Lodwar the day before, we printed out instruction sheets, purchased soap and clothes pins, and in our room in our guest house, Shawn and I put all the kits together, assembly-line style. The next morning we rode about forty-five minutes out of town to Lokoyo Friends Church and School. John’s wife, Grace, joined us, and was a tremendous help. Slowly a group of girls, and even a few mamas, trickled in.
We all introduced ourselves and I told them about Friends United Meeting, and that there are women in America who care about them, pray for them, and had an idea of a way they might be able to help and make a difference. Pastor John was helping us with translation as I tried to give a basic explanation of the background story, instructions, and the contents of each kit. The girls were quiet, and, when I asked if there were any questions, only giggled. Hmmm…...
Thankfully, Grace suggested that the men go outside to talk for a bit, and then we got down to business. We did our best to guess on sizes and gave a kit to each girl. Then we made them take everything out of the kit so they could inspect it all and practice assembling a pad and fastening it into a new pair of underwear. It is all a little tricky! Suddenly they were more talkative and had plenty of questions.
We also had time to talk about their experiences and challenges of managing their period, and staying in school. Turkana County is one of the poorest in the country and lags behind in almost all areas. The girls said their school there doesn’t have pads to give away for free. And many parents still believe that daughters are more valuable for the work they provide, such as gathering firewood or fetching daily water, and for the dowry they will bring as soon as they are married off. Studies show, though, that educating girls consistently raises the overall well-being of an entire village, and that the effects are long term.
We had a few kits remaining, which John Moru now felt equipped to distribute, and his plan is to get them to some of the girls sponsored by FUM’s Girl Child Education Fund, and to the daughters of some of the mission pastors. When I asked John feedback about the project, he said finds it valuable because it can really make a sustainable difference. We can’t help all girls, but for these girls it can actually change their lives now and for the future. Personally, I’m also pleased with how this project has turned out, and I feel confident that we can use the remaining kit supplies that are ready or being finished to bring with us on our next visit to Samburu.
If other USFW groups are interested in continuing this project, I would love to discuss a way forward together. One of the project’s positive aspects that I heard about from Western’s Dinah Geiger is that this project helped get some people more personally connected to the USFW since there was a way to be involved. Yet not as many USFW members sew or have sewing ability as used to be the case.
In my opinion, some of the best service projects are those that build relationships and partnership, so that each side both gives and receives. What might that look like in this case? Many women in Kenya know how to sew, and I am aware of several self-help cooperative groups of widows who do sewing projects as a way to support themselves and their families. For them, sometimes seed money for buying supplies, or actually finding something like the waterproof fabric in the pads, or the snaps, etc., can be challenging. If several groups could get started sewing pads, they could sell some at a reasonable price to earn income, and maybe some American USFW groups could sponsor some pads to be sewn that we could still distribute to very needy girls. It would help the local economy, promote a trade, and help women to support themselves in addition to empowering the girls and women who receive them. I think there are many ways that we can look at creative partnerships where we can all contribute something to solve a problem.
By the way, I’ve learned that sanitary pads are also an ongoing problem in the United States for women experiencing poverty. Did you know that if you get government assistance, like food stamps, it can’t be used for feminine hygiene products? If you ever contribute to a local food bank or homeless shelter, feminine hygiene products will always be welcome and used.
—Katrina McConaughey, Africa Programme Officer