Yesterday my friend Betty and I fell into fits of laughter over, let’s just say it, the pathetic first kits of Days for Girls. I usually say that you have to be with our team for 6 months before we’ll show them to you, because they are that embarrassing. Betty and I were sharing the wonder of Days for Girls global effectiveness in just 6 years (Our birthday is November 1st) and how far the kits and our unexpected purpose has come. I can tell you that one of the secrets of our success has been tenacious flexibility to listen to feedback and respond to the wisdom of those we serve. In other words, we failed fabulously forward and the resulting empowerment has reached 75+ nations on 6 continents.
Failure 1: Overlooking the basics. I had been passionate about seeking and implementing global sustainable solutions in Kenya and beyond for 2 1/2 years, looking for solutions to break cycles of poverty. I failed to ask a basic question that is pivotal to reversing barriers to education, health and dignity for women around the globe. It came to me in one of those, “How-did-I-not-think-of-this-before?” breathtaking moments. I had been voluntarily helping raise support for an orphanage after meeting the children during a dignitary invitational visit to the slums of Kibera. My response was practical solutions such as efficient Rocket stoves, library books and food but I never thought to ask the basic question, “What are the girls doing for feminine hygiene?” The answer turned out to be, “Nothing. They wait in their rooms.” I tried to imagine how girls waited, packed 50 to a room in overcrowded bunks. It turned out they waited on a piece of cardboard. No sanitation, no classroom access, nothing, for 4 days. Every month. I knew we had to do something.
Failure 2: What works for me.... I found a nonprofit that offered disposable pads at a discount right in Nairobi. We purchased one month’s supply for $200 for the 500 girls needing them. Somehow I had failed to consider that there was no place to dispose of soiled disposable pads. The pads were left littered everywhere, causing more stigma and health issues as the girls tried to wash and reuse pads discarded in piles. Not to mention that every pit latrine was stopped up with soiled “disposables.”
I did know, however, that even if I could manage to raise $200 a month for disposable hygiene, if I sent money for pads, and they needed food, they would purchase food, not pads. That turns out to be true worldwide. Anywhere that a family or group has to choose between food and pads, the choice is clear. We knew we had to come up with a sustainable solution. We had 3 1/2 weeks to design and implement kits for 500 girls before I returned to Kenya. Impossible? We did it thanks to another secret of our success, passionate, phenomenal volunteers.
Failure 3: Design informed by what we know. We made our 500 sanitary kits white, because pads are white, right? We made them oval... because that’s what pads look like. Both traditional choices caused problems for the girls. There is such stigma about menstruation that they would hide the pads under their beds rather than dry them in sunlight. But would you and I want to publicly display stained pad-shaped items in our front yard? I hadn’t thought of that. I had only considered the need-- what they needed was colorful stain-busting pads that didn’t look like pads.
Here’s where the magic of failure comes in, but it only happened because we sought the wisdom of those we serve, listened and responded with tenacious flexibility.
How to make a pad not look like a pad
Twenty-three. The number of versions of pads we made to get to the one we have today, which thanks to the wisdom of thousands of women’s feedback and the input of our volunteer network, is culturally, environmentally and physically relevant to women and girls around the globe, including in the United States. We made them colorful to serve as a cheerful stain-buster and we modified them to be square and foldable, so they look like a washcloth, not a pad, busting taboo barriers in their wake. It turned out that by responding to the need to modify there were important bonuses, the liners now washed with 1/4 the water and dried much faster. Thank goodness we listened.
Informed design isn’t the only thing we learned. Those first girls had more to teach us, because we were listening. When they thanked us they explained, “Before you came we had to let ‘them’ use us if we wanted to stay in class.” I hoped that didn’t mean what I thought it meant but it was true, they had been sexually exploited in exchange for simple pads until we brought a solution they could count on month after month. The kits turned out to give them days of health, dignity and opportunity, which is where our name came from. For me learning that they also freed the girls from exploitation has made all we have done for Days for Girls worth it.
Fast forward to today
Days for Girls kits have reached girls, women and communities in over 75 nations on 6 continents, reversing the cycle of poverty in a simple, direct, effective and yes, surprising way: We help women have access to sustainable feminine hygiene. Who would have guessed that one of the major causes of disempowerment of girls in poverty is their monthly cycle. Many girls cannot afford feminine hygiene products and as a result cannot attend school. A girl absent from school due to menstruation for 4 days of every 28 day cycle loses 13 learning days, the equivalent of two weeks of learning every school term. Studies show that every year of schooling increasing a girl's future earning power by 10 to 20 percent, allowing her to break the cycle of poverty. help girls feel their voice is vital, to be confident and not have to be isolated in their rooms. To understand that menstruation is not a disease to fear nor be shamed by, in fact without periods there would be no people. The impact of sustainable quality feminine hygiene has been breathtaking. One school in Uganda went from an average of 25 out of 100 girls dropping out upon reaching menstruation, to only 4% dropout rate the next year after receiving kits. The impact of our kits, our women’s health curriculum and resulting community conversations has proven to help communities stand up to child trafficking, exploitation and even FGC, female genital cutting.
Now we are training trainers to make Days for Girls programs their own local enterprises. It'w working.
I was looking for means to reverse cycles of poverty and violence against women. Who would have imagined that one of the keys would fit in a small bag? There are millions of girls and women worldwide who suffer days of isolation, infection, and exploitation due to this single issue-- it will take all of us to reach all of them. With attention to collaboration, and responsiveness to local feedback Days for Girls tackles large systemic challenges with simple solutions that are turning out to be key to social changes. Far beyond what I could even imagine the day I asked the question, “What are the girls doing for feminine hygiene?” Asking questions and listening with tenacious flexibility and yes, embarrassing failures to find ways to be relevant with the local feedback of those we serve has made all the difference.
Back to school! You have made it possible for so many girls to go back to school and stay there with dignity and confidence. Women too, have more opportunties for serving as leaders and building a business in their communities, thanks to you. It has been a busy summer for the Ugandan team of Days for Girls International. We have travelled all over the country, served some amazing people and organizations, and helped expand awareness about the state of menstrual hygiene management in Uganda. Thanks to everyone at Global Giving for your support in this journey! We have made a lot of progress in a short period of time and it is all thanks to our incredible network of supporters around the world.
We are getting great opportunities to share the training models your support has made possible and to expand our reach, working with a diverse group of communities, from South Sudanese refugees to rural farming communities to government officials. We like to share the individual stories of the girls and women and this time there is so much going on that we wanted to share more of the big picture of what you are making possible.
3000 Women at the South Sudanese Refugee Camp, Adjumani, Uganda
In July, the DfGU team traveled to northern Uganda to conduct a distribution of menstrual hygiene kits for 3,000 South Sudanese refugees. About 2,000 of the kits were sent in from DfG chapters around the world, and the remaining kits were made right in our office in Kampala. In partnership with Uganda’s Ministry of Disaster Relief and the Church of Latter-Day Saints, we ventured to the camp to meet the women and begin the distribution process. Diva, our incredible sewing officer, lead a short training with the women on how to use the kit. Picture 3,000 women... that's a whole lot of restored dignity to those that had lost everything.
After that, the distribution began! Each of the four DfGU staff members set up a station with an English-speaking South Sudanese counterpart to help translate. The women lined up at the different stations, while children gathered around to see what was taking place. For four hours in the hot sun we handed out the kits to girls and women. After collecting their kits, many of the women stuck around and sat in groups comparing and admiring their kits. It was an incredible experience for everyone involved and we are hoping to go back again soon and distribute in another section of the camp.
Leading Leaders – Meeting DRC Congo Chapter Coordinator Starla
Part of what you have been supporting is helping us refine our programs so that they could be replicated around the globe. We have recently had the great privilege of hosting and training with DRC Congo volunteer Chapter Coordinator, Starla. She is a dynamo and really took our time together seriously. She is laying the foundation for truly exemplary work in Congo and it was an honor to work with her. Your support made that possible.
Musaale Community Center, Buwagogo, Uganda
Soon after our northern Uganda trip, we trekked off towards Eastern Uganda to work with a wonderful group of women at the Musaale Community Center. We were connected to these women through Days for Girls Australia, and asked to provide a training in kit construction, soap making, and business skills. We were hosted in the home of the Local Chairperson for Buwagogo and enjoyed meals made straight from their garden every day (and milk straight from their cows).
This training was slightly different than any training we have done before because many of the women have been out of school since they were children, and so we adjusted the pace of the lessons to meet their various learning styles and speeds. Overall, the training was incredible. The women showed so much interest and determination to learn the skills we were imparting. Most of them traveled long distances by foot to attend the lessons each day and often brought along their young children or babies. After they completed the soap training, they were excited to take home and sample and try it out for their laundry. We have kept in touch via phone and will be heading back before too long to conduct a follow-up visit.
Days for Girls Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya
Our trip to Kenya was a little different than our previous travels… Instead of conducting any trainings or distributions, we were traveling there to meet with our wonderful Days for Girls Kenya colleagues and to learn about flannel production in Nairobi. We stopped in Nakuru to meet the amazing DfGK team that is Julie and Masese! Their team is preparing to ramp up operations in Kenya using the knowledge our efforts here in Uganda have developed. We enjoyed sharing many ideas and lessons from our experiences. We picked up more quality fabric resources while there too!
Menstrual Hygiene Management Conference, Kampala, Uganda
Although our entire summer has been full and productive as we shared trainings and local empowerment, one of the highlights for all of us was our attendance at the Menstrual Hygiene Management Conference on August 14th and 15th. This conference was hosted by SNV, the Dutch Development Organization, and The Network for Water and Sanitation (NETWAS). There were over 200 participants present, and they represented countries all over Africa, from Uganda to Kenya to Mozambique to Zimbabwe.
Through this conference, we learned about the amazing work being done to address MHM needs at the government level, in the private sector, and among other non-profits and non-governmental organizations. DfGU appreciated being featured there, presenting a paper and PowerPoint presentation on our mission, approach, and model. We met so many amazing people and have been busily scheduling follow-up meetings with each and every one of them. The results and network just keeps growing!
This fall, we will continue our traveling and networking as we arrange distributions and offer more trainings for school groups, community groups, and even other trainers. All of this work is possible with your support and if you could see the gratitude we see every day, you would know just how vital your support has been. We’re happy to serve and couldn’t do so without your support. Thank you! We’ll report back soon.
How do you know a project is succeeding? When demand and programs keep showing increased results. Big things have been happening in Uganda thanks to all of our Global Giving supporters!
In late March, the Days for Girls Uganda (DfGU) team traveled to Kisiki College in Eastern Uganda to conduct reproductive health training and a large reusable menstrual kit distribution.
In partnership with the school, the DfGU team was able to conduct research on how menstruation is affecting the lives of the female students. At that school 70% of the students interviewed stated that they had missed class as a result of menstruation!
The word cloud below illustrates the students' response to how they feel when they don't have materials to help manage their menstruation. The bigger the word, the more gave that answer.
Thankfully, because of your support, the Days for Girls team was able to distribute reusable menstrual kits to all 653 female students enrolled in Kisiki College.
Thanks to your support, the DfGU team also trained all 1,428 students (both male and female) in reproductive health knowledge. After the training one of the teachers approached the staff to express her gratitude She said that lack of reproductive health knowledge is a big problem throughout Ugandan schools. Students often approach the teachers asking for advice and information regarding the body changes that they're experiencing and how to manage the emotional ups and downs of puberty. She said that, not having received thorough training herself, she felt ill equip to handle such situations. After having gone through the training and receiving a Days for Girls Reproductive Health and Empowerment Manual, the teacher stated that both she and her students are armed with the information that they need to keep themselves safe and healthy..
Defend One Trainings
The Days for Girls Uganda team was able to partner with Defend One, a US based non-profit working in Uganda, to carryout soaping making, reproductive health, and business skills trainings as well as reusable menstrual kit distributions in Iganga and Kamuli Districts.
Training women in how to make soap is an initiative that has impacts on multiple levels. One, the soap that the women make can be used to wash their reusable menstrual pads. Two, increasing access to soap helps communities combat dangerous, communicable illnesses such as cholera, dysentery, and diarrhea. Three, making and selling soap is a great business and can help local women become self-reliant so they can pull themselves out of poverty.
Women who participated in the Kamuli training were particularly appreciative of the opportunity to diversify their income. Days for Girls works primarily with subsistence farmers. A few weeks prior to our training, Kamuli experienced a devastating storm which destroyed most of the women's crops.
"I liked the whole program of Days for Girls because a storm has recently affected this village and we were left with nothing. The coffee was destroyed, the maize has been affected by pests and nothing is growing. Because of the soap training I can have an extra income which will help keep my kids in school." Jennifer M.
Days for Girls both trains women in reproductive health knowledge and encourages mothers to talk to their children about the changes they'll experience as they go through puberty. One woman told us about the impact that understanding menstruation and creating an open dialogue has had on her family.
"I learned how to be clean as a woman and I learned what to teach my children about being clean and hygienic. I've even already started talking to them about it. I've told them about menstruation and how it comes about. I told them about the age that it starts, how it comes and so much. I realized that it was normal for my daughter to have started her menstruation early. I learned that menstruation can come at any age, it does not mean that someone is abnormal."
The team was able to train many women and distribute many kits between the two communities.
We feel so fortunate to be able to create real and tangible impacts in the lives of the women and communities we serve. Thank you for supporting Days for Girls and helping us continue to serve women around the world.
In the past few weeks DfGU has also been creating kits for the Somalian refuge camps in Northern Uganda and continueing to meet the demand for more training for more groups. Kenya has begun to step up their activities to do likewise as they apply the lessons learned in Uganda. Now we are readying to share it with groups around the globe. Thank you for helping make it all possible.This is how together, we can reach every girls, everywhere. Period. But it will take all of us and your support is helping make it happen.