Nairobi Young Mothers’ Sewing Club

After months of communication and preparation we finally arrived in Kenya. Colleen Demers and I flew to Nairobi to get the sewing project under way.

We met with Jane Otai at the Jhpeigo office and set off from there. The drive seemed long, maybe an hour, and it gave me a good perspective on the surroundings which lead up the Kariobangi slum where we were heading.

The taxi stopped outside a dilapidated six-storey building, just outside the slum. All around broken down buildings, garbage strewn everywhere, street vendors yelling for business, school kids in dishevelled uniforms waiting to go inside a room that they call school, security guards standing around, smoke billowing from piles of burning garbage, mothers hanging clothes on a line right outside their shanties. Smells of cooking food intermingled with smoke and urine. The heat and humidity seems to always magnify these odours.

We walked up five flights of narrow stairs until we reached the floor where Jane, Colleen and I were welcomed by a dozen shy, young women and a few of their children. I’m sure they were just as curious as we were. It was time to get acquainted and ease into the training program that lay ahead.

Although it was a very small space with limitations, as it was shared on different days for different purposes, we managed to work around the conditions and turn it into a sewing room of sorts.

Each sewing machine needed to be set up to work properly, the functions explained and each person given instructions on how to use the machine efficiently.  The moms were ready to try a power machine for the first time and were excited and happy!

I could see how eager they were to learn new techniques and Colleen was such a good teacher. Highly qualified, with years of sewing experience and expertise, Colleen was living her dream to work with young women to help them to establish a level of creativity and a standard of quality in their sewing. I could see that they were quick learners.

Our goal was to teach the women how to create menstrual pads and a carry special carry bag, both for themselves and to sell on to others, while helping them understand hygiene issues and overcome embarrassment in dealing with periods.  Inside each bag is room for a fresh, clean pad as well as space for the soiled one to be transported home for washing later. When the young women shared how they didn’t like the idea of washing and hanging out the pads to dry, Colleen found a mesh fabric in which to store the drying pad away from prying eyes.

Most people don’t realize the shame and frustration that comes with girls getting their period. So many of them are dropping out of school because of it. Girls are not given proper hygienic feminine products to ensure they will not get infections during their periods.

We spent time sourcing out fabrics that were not only absorbent and comfortable but also cost effective, ensuring a sustainable solution. I wanted a creative, organic look to the carry bag. A look that would reflect the African culture, so we agreed to beige burlap and the insert would be the African cement bag and a pendant that was created and handmade by the young moms. We hoped that these packages would sell well in the western market. The inserts are waterproof and adequate for the girls in the slum.

The looks of joy and accomplishment were overwhelming as the young women learned each new technique! Making their own patterns, learning how to use a snap machine, using a cutting board rather than scissors, and exploring the possibilities with their sergers was exciting!

Meanwhile, Colleen and I realized that their work space was in desperate need of organization. I purchased several containers, drawers and bags to manage the clutter and help clean up the mess, and we showcased their clothing and jewellery in a glass cabinet. Everyone was overjoyed!

Colleen bonded with the group in a way that will be memorable for years to come. She asked to carry the baby on her back so she could experience a little bit of their daily life.

Besides the training, we spent time singing and dancing, laughing and crying, sharing food, worship and prayer, but the greatest of all was our exchange of love and friendship, the meaning of respect.

These young, single moms were imparted with encouragement and hope. Whether they had suffered hardship and discrimination, making ends meet or dealing with HIV aids, there was now potential for change. In one small way, we made an impact through education to help these individuals turn around their future, perhaps reach out and teach others and, above all, help their children to make better choices for the next generation.

I am encouraged by organizations such as Jhpiego, World Vision and Better by Half, for all the work they do to help empower women and girls to make “the world twice as good”.

No, I can’t go to school – the menstrual taboo

Can you imagine putting your life on hold every month, to avoid the shame of menstruation?

That’s what happens when you can’t afford sanitary napkins and resort to using whatever you can as an alternative. Any old rag to staunch the flow is not only unhealthy (causing skin irritations and vaginal infections) but impracticable and messy. So many girls miss classes (worried about embarrassing stains and discomfort), become isolated and eventually drop out of school altogether. By missing out on education, they miss the opportunity for better employment, can become susceptible to sexual exploitation and ultimately perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

Can you imagine what it would mean to millions of girls and women around the world to have ready access to sanitary pads?

It would change lives! Imagine the confidence young women would gain in being able to live an unrestricted life knowing that their monthly periods were not going to hold them back or make them sick.

What we need is jugaad – a simple, but ingenious invention in the face of scarce resources – it’s what a can-do attitude can achieve!

The subject of menstrual health education – and connecting innovation with investment to provide sustainable solutions – has been close to my heart for many years, ever since working with Jane Otai on our African Girl Empowerment Program. Lunapads founder Madeleine Shaw

I had been following models such as those offered by Afripads and Huru, and recently had the pleasure of meeting Lunapads founder, Madeleine Shaw, in Vancouver. Madeleine showed me samples of the washable, reusable pads and demonstrated how the simple design of a comfortable, absorbent pad could provide hygiene and dignity to the users and a livelihood to the sewers, meaning potential empowerment for women all over the world!

Can you imagine how you could become involved in making it happen for them?

Now we can combine health education with a practical self-help option. With nominal start-up and operating costs, willing participants and a little training, the model is most definitely achievable and replicable across both poor rural villages and urban slums!

Here’s what we need:

  1. A women’s local, self-help group,
  2. A clean facility in which to sew,
  3. Sewing machines, fabric and notions,
  4. A trainer to teach the concept and business model.

At this time I have identified two communities – one in Nairobi, Kenya, and the other in Kolkata, India – that would benefit enormously from such a small enterprise.

In Nairobi, our women’s self-help group is already established, developed by Jane Otai through Jhepeigo. The women are currently sewing various items and are ready to learn how to sew sanitary pads. For this project we need fabric, sewing notions and a trainer to provide the impetus to develop the idea into a viable business.

In Kolkata, we are starting fresh with a small group of women eagerly looking forward to this opportunity. Here we are looking for 10 sewing machines and a location, as well as fabric and notions. Most importantly, we need to offer the support to find a trainer and mentor for the group.

We have the opportunity to put this jugaad into motion and help women to empower themselves! Are you in?

African Girls Empowerment Program: Mathare Valley, Part 2

It was a time I will never forget, walking through the Mathare Valley slums and hearing the terrible stories. Scavenging every day, just to find scraps to feed their families, mothers would succumb in desperation to selling their girls.

Mathare Valley, Brenda and JaneJane Otai is a national who grew up in this slum. She has a deep commitment to help these people. Understanding the perspective of slum dwellers so well, she was offered the amazing opportunity to work with Compassion International, which is how I met her.

We were discussing the difficult situations that pre-pubescent girls face. Young girls are naïve targets for sexual predators and they have to deal with many health issues from unhygienic menstruation practices, pregnancies, STD’s and AIDS.

Mathare Valley Brenda inspects fem hygiene articles
This is the material girls are using for their periods; it is dirty and causes infections.

It was clear to me that we needed to educate these girls on some basic health topics. Eventually, Jane and I developed a program to provide girls with feminine hygiene products, underwear and pain medication, as well as information about nutrition, health, sex and cultural issues. The “African Girls Empowerment Program” included an educational video that could be mass produced to share this knowledge throughout African communities, with a priority to girls living in the slums.

Our pilot project in July 2006 was a huge success. The morale of the girls participating in the program grew and as they gained confidence, they began to attend school again. Here are some of the highlights from the program:

  • 95% attendance by both the participants and the facilitators.
  • The girls gained knowledge related to themselves, their sexuality, and understood the need to appreciate themselves. Majority of the girls gained self-confidence.
  • Literature regarding pertinent issues affecting their lives was made available to the girls.
  • Behavior change documentary was shown to the girls where the theme included drug abuse, peer influence and HIV/AIDS. Some of the responses the girls had after watching the ‘The Dose” included:
    • pledging to avoid bad peer groups that are capable of influencing them into drugs,
    • agreeing that drug use and abuse is a bad habit and therefore should be avoided.
  • Facilitation of the trainings was made enjoyable through the acquisition of more reference materials for both the girls and facilitators.
  • Providing sanitary pads to the girls also boosted the girls’ self-confidence significantly.
  • It was felt that the girls participating learned to understand that they are of great value and can make decisions for their lives.

From this program we learned how other communities could benefit from crucial health education to improve the lives of people living in extreme poverty.

Mathare Valley slum school, Brenda being shown how to dance