It’s a subject that touches half the population, but one that people are often too squeamish to speak about openly. Menstrual cycles. When a woman in the U.S. gets it, she stocks up on feminine products and goes about her business. Problem solved.
But for women in developing countries without easy access to sanitary pads, life for one week out of every month comes to a screeching halt. One St. Kate’s student has taken on a project to change this reality for Maasai women in the Serengeti region of eastern Tanzania.
It all started with a 2013 J-term trip to Tanzania. The subject of the class, conservation and biology, attracted Laura Crepeau ’16, a biology major with a passion for these issues.
Once there, Crepeau met Maggie, the founder of DARE Women’s Foundation, a nonprofit initially dedicated to conservation efforts by reaching out to families through women.
“The Maasai are pastoralists whose wealth is measured in the number of cattle they have. Some may have thousands of cattle, but they are overgrazing their ecosystem,” says Crepeau.
During their outreach, DARE discovered other important issues facing women, including domestic abuse, lack of self-worth and low educational attainment. When girls do attend school, it's close to home so that they can help with the household and younger siblings. While DARE still promotes conservation, the group quickly refocused their work to educating and empowering women in all aspects.
“While we need to respect cultural boundaries, you can’t help but wonder, do they even understand that they are human beings with rights too, that they have a right to education and to a life free of violence,” asks Crepeau.
In speaking with one of the school girls, Crepeau uncovered a startling hurdle to independence faced by Maasai teens and middle-aged women alike — no access to affordable feminine hygiene products. More often than not, the resulting inconvenience, embarrassment and stress causes women to stay home.
“I was really surprised when the girl I met told me she missed a lot of school — one week a month. I thought, if I missed a week of lectures each month at St. Kate’s, I’d never finish my degree,” said Crepeau.
When women do venture out, they use rags or the few disposable feminine products they have are used multiple times or torn in half and shared with other women. This practice can lead to illness and in some extreme cases, infections and death.
“I thought there’s got to be a better way,” says Crepeau, and consequently, “The Period Project” was born.
For two months, Crepeau contacted major manufacturing companies, requesting donations of feminine products. She also reached out to larger hospital systems that that dispose of unused or expired feminine products as medical waste.
“I kept getting rejection after rejection. They all came back to me saying that they don’t donate unless you’re the American Red Cross or a recognized nonprofit,” says Crepeau.
As a newer organization, DARE Women’s Foundation is still in the process of gaining official nonprofit status. Being a Tanzanian-based organization further complicates corporate donations.
Undeterred, Crepeau continued to seek solutions.
“During the time I spent in Tanzania, I built relationships with these women. I just couldn’t give up on them. Maybe it’s because I’m stubborn when I set my mind on doing something, or because it’s the St. Kate’s way — I just couldn’t quit,” she says.
The conservationist in her provided an idea — what about reusable pads? Through research and experimenting with a few different patterns, Crepeau finally came up with a prototype that worked. Five layers of breathable fabric with a plastic liner to prevent leaks. The pads can be washed and reused for up to a year.
She then set about fundraising, and knew that using social media was a quick way to raise dollars. The lowest cost site that Crepeau found was GoFundMe, which allowed her to post a project profile and photographs, and interfaced nicely with social media.
Her original goal was $500, which she raised within three days of posting on Facebook. So she increased the goal to $1,500 and has nearly reached that.
Just days left before second semester starts, Crepeau is hunkering down to sew the last 300 of 1,000 pads.
When all is said and done, 500 women and girls will received discreet care packages that contain two reusable pads, a sheet with instructions and hygiene tips translated into Swahili, a pattern to make additional pads, two bars of antibacterial soap and an extra heavy duty plastic bag.
Proof that sometimes the simplest of solutions can have a most profound impact.
When asked why she took on this project, Crepeau is quick to answer.
“By going to St. Kate’s and experiencing the opportunity it affords women, you can’t help but want to offer that to someone else,” she explains. “This is one less thing now that these girls need to worry about. And think of the message it sends to them — that people halfway across the world in Minnesota care enough to provide this for them. Maybe that will help them begin to understand their self-worth.”
A scrupulous steward of the resources given to her, Crepeau has paid for GoFundMe user fees out of her own pocket. She’s kept the material supply costs to about $500, and rather than to pay exorbitant shipping costs, she’s paying the luggage fee for a friend to transport the pads to Tanzania this spring — a student from Gustavus Adolphus that she met on the initial trip.
The balance of the money will go to the DARE Women’s Foundation for the purchase of a sewing machine and to fund education and empowerment programming.