In this post we explain the programmatic details of the Sew Powerful Purse program, the reusable pads, and related details.
Purpose: We are working hard to link seamstresses from around the world to combat extreme poverty by provide re-usable feminine hygiene supplies and health training to girls in Zambia. This enables them to attend school all month and improve their academic performance.
In the International Relief and Development community (aka World Health Organization type people) this topic is called MHM, (Menstruation Hygiene Management, or Menstrual Hygiene Management). You can read about how the Gates Foundation is looking into this topic here.
Why Re-usable Feminine Hygiene Products? It is important to understand the current products available to these girls and what happens if they don’t have access to any solutions. There are basicly two commonly used personal care items for women in Zambia and many African nations. Disposables and re-usables. And the re-usable product comes in the ‘traditional’ version and the ‘new and improved version. Let us explain…
Why Not Disposables? One option (which none of the poor use) is disposable product just like women use in the western world. These products are readily available on every grocery store shelf throughout the country. So depending on their proximity to a grocery store, they do have this option, theoretically. Of course many rural villages don’t have a grocery store anywhere nearby. The other major problem is this is a very expensive solution.
Ecological Nightmare: The other significant issue is that in both urban slums and rural villages, even if they could afford to use these products, with no garbage service in their community, these products would create an ecological nightmare as they are thrown into the out-house, or placed into the open sewage areas, the common practice for slums. In rural village areas the product would more likely be burned with the other trash or thrown into the out-house. This is really only an option for the urban middle and upper class however. This is not an option for the urban or rural poor because they cannot afford the cost. There are African companies and charities that are trying to advocate and dispense disposable products in both urban and rural settings. We believe they are betting on the wrong solution.
In our view no disposable product solution makes sense in the rural (village) or urban (slum) context. Disposables are a western convenience product that doesn’t translate into poor communities. Simply “gifting” disposable pads into poor communities won’t solve the sanitation related problems and is misguided half-measure.
Replacing Poorly Designed Reusables: There is a current “method” (I won’t go into detail) women use when they don’t have access to better solutions. What is very interesting is the older (American) ladies we’ve talked to said it was “the common method” used in the United States 40 to 50 years ago, before the invention of disposable products. The reason the current method is poorly serving these women and girls is that it cannot be trusted to not leak and cause social embarrassment. This causes most girls that use this method to stay home from school during their time of the month.
The Value Of Our Reusable Pad (MHM) Product: We aren’t claiming to be experts on the topic of Menstrual Hygiene Management, (MHM), but we are professional seamstresses, designers, and product marketers. So we bring some competency to this issue. We learned a lot about this topic from Days For Girls, (they are great, and have a different delivery model than we do, but clearly they pioneered this topic in some ways). We also really admire Afripads.com, a social enterprise in Uganda that has the same product approach that we use. One key difference between Afripads and Sew Powerful is that In their amazing program they have a large sales team that sells the items locally in Uganda. They sell to non-profit organizations, retailers, and other organizations and businesses. We aspire to be like them one day.
The Winning Product – Reusables: In our view – it is obvious – a well designed reusable pad product, that can be made very inexpensively in-country, then used by well informed customers, or explained by trusted local health workers and educators via schools, is the winning product solution. We doubt (very much) that any large consumer packaging company will roll out a product line of this type of product because of course, they like the income from reselling disposable products.
Our Unique Product Packaging, The Sew Powerful Purse: You might wonder why we ask seamstresses from around the world to download our Sew Powerful Purse pattern, sew purses, and send them to us. The answer is simple. We need the help and support of the global sewing community to tackle this issue. We also need a beautiful product package, and what is more beautiful than amazing hand-made purses? So involving the western seamstresses accomplishes these two vitally important goals. We are very lucky to have our International shipping donated by a very large non-profit.
Some people ask, “why not make the purses locally in Lusaka too, why have ladies around the world participate?” And we say, “because we want passionate seamstresses from around the world to be involved so together we can scale up the program, spread the word, fund the program growth, and utilize all their amazing fabric, machines, and social connections.”
Some people ask, “why not have the western seamstresses make the reusable pads too, and do the whole thing outside Zambia and send it in as a charitable gift?” And we say, “because we have a sewing cooperative in Lusaka and the local moms there need good paying jobs. If the western seamstresses did all the work it would destroy the opportunity for local seamstresses to earn a living, assist in tackling poverty, and dis-empower them.”
Yes – Girls Are Really Missing School Because Of This Issue: We have personally validated in the Ngombe community that girls do commonly stay home when they are on their period, (we watched the hands raised as they answered the questions). Statistically it has been documented that girls in Africa miss about 6 weeks of school each year for this reason. That is a massive systematic dis-advantage over the boys in school.
Why The 7th Grade Exam Is So Critical: In Sub-Saharan Africa the predominant school system approach is a British system with Primary School and Secondary School. The 7th Grade exam is used to determine whether a child can move on to Secondary School. If they fail, their academic career is over. So ensuring that girls pass this test is critical.
Do We Have Specific Measurable Outcomes? We have the test results from the Needs Care School we work with to prove that girls do worse than boys on the 7th Grade Exam, (yes, we have actually statistical test data). We are documenting the test results to statistically prove our product has serious social (and educational) value.
We Need Two Purses For Every Girl: The first comment we heard from our local program staff, after seeing the value of the purses and re-usable pads, was that the moms (or caretakers) of the girls would (without any doubt or hesitation) take these items from the girls so that they could use them for themselves, leaving the girl in the same circumstance as before – without any solution for managing their periods. So we need a “household” solution. We decided the most practical way to achieve this is to give each girl a purse for themselves and one for their mom or caretaker, which may be an aunt or extended female family member. This is our current model.
Additional Supplies Must Be Provided: We’ve also heard from the Zambians that the girls in Ngombe don’t have more than one pair of underwear. We didn’t believe this could be true, but we watched as the girls were asked to raise their hands to confirm – yes – most of them only had one pair. Wow. Nor do they have soap for doing laundry at their house, a key part of the re-usable pad method. So we factored into our Sew Powerful Purse program the cost of one bar of laundry soap and two pair of underwear, (all sourced locally). We can deliver this entire solution to school girls for $5 per purse.
Why We Need To Put The Product On-Sale Locally: The first question the girls in the health class asked was, “how much does this cost if my sister or auntie wants to buy it.” Wow, we were shocked! We quickly realized we need a complete solution that can be sold – in addition to the “gifted” items given to the school girls. We believe we can affordably provide a complete solution, including a simple clutch purse made by the seamstresses, that will provide a one-year “solution”. We haven’t rolled it out yet, but our goal is to create a new product like this:
- Sew Powerful Purse version: In this version pads and related supplies are included in a beautiful purse made with love by seamstresses in American (and Canada, Australia, England and beyond). This is a “gifted” version that goes to girls as part of health class training.
- Local ‘for-sale’ version: The local version is identical except that it comes in a locally made clutch purse that is sewn by the seamstresses in Lusaka. This version is designed to be sold to local customers at a price point that they can afford, (very inexpensively), but still covers the cost-of-goods and labor.
Growing The Sewing Cooperative: There are so many “wins” related to this program for all involved, the seamstresses from around the world, the schools, the sewing cooperative women in Lusaka, and the girls. We’re thrilled that this program gives the seamstresses in the sewing cooperative good solid work. We are paying them one U.S. dollar for each completed set of pads, (one purse’s worth). Almost all of them live on less than $100 USD per month, so this program can increase their household income a lot. That is a serious benefit to them personally.
We Are Sew Powerful: We have been blown away by the support for this project and the momentum and enthusiasm continues to grow. We are grateful for your support! Together we really are Sew Powerful.