Julie Phippen popped her head around the doorway, looking for a co-worker, Holly Perry.
She had a new project she wanted to chat about – but also, as Ms. Perry remembers, a caveat: It wasn’t the easiest thing to discuss.
In rural Zimbabwe, where Ms. Phippen’s family had traveled that summer, menstruation can cost some girls their education. Most families can’t afford the pads sold in stores, which often don’t carry them anyway, and some school bathrooms don’t have running water or private stalls.
“The thought just kept on going in my head: I couldn’t imagine this is happening,” Phippen says. “I thought about my daughter, and my two stepdaughters, thinking how fortunate they’ve been, and could never imagine them not being able to go to school.”
Her interest piqued, she started reading anything she could find on menstrual hygiene management, or MHM. In much of the developing world, store-bought, disposable products make little sense financially or environmentally, if they’re even available. And in cultures where taboos around menstruation remain strong, female sanitary needs often rank low among the priorities set by the heads of households.
Instead, girls turn to leftover cloth and other materials – and many stay home. One study in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo province found that, on average, young women miss three days of school each month because of their periods.
In the past few years, several groups have produced reusable, affordable pads as part of an increase in attention to MHM and its connections to many sides of development work – water and sanitation, public health, education, and gender equality, to name a few. It was inspiring work, Phippen thought, but she wondered if the production cost of pads could be brought down and their comfort improved.
It was time to buy a sewing machine, she decided.
“I felt absolutely, if you will, divinely directed,” she says, although she had “no idea” what she was getting herself into.
Today, she has an all-volunteer nonprofit, Sewpportive Friends – and 263 pads in progress, she says, on her dining room table in Beverly Farms, Mass. Before heading to work at an asset management firm, she’s up at 3:30 a.m., every day, to design, cut, stitch, and communicate – whatever it takes for Sewpportive Friends to deliver what will be its second round of MHM kits to rural village schools that border two Zimbabwean national parks.
In the United States, “you can order a button to put in your house, and when you press it, you can have a box of tampons delivered to your house in two days,” says Perry, referring to the Dash Buttons from Amazon.com. “There are enough socioeconomic challenges that come with being a teenage girl in this world, and your period shouldn’t have to be one of them,” says Perry, who immediately asked how she could help after Phippen explained the project she was pouring her time into.
Other friends of Phippen’s, as well as family members, asked how they could help, too. Sewpportive Friends now consists of a four-woman leadership team, which includes Phippen and Perry, and a small army of sewers. Each knapsack kit they assemble, for roughly $15, has two pairs of underwear; three “padlets,” which snap into place; and nine inserts, which can be tucked into the padlet. All the items are washable and reusable.
As Phippen and her family prepared to return to Zimbabwe last summer with the first round of kits, she hoped to bring 30 of them, for 30 girls. In the end, the group made 100.
As Phippen recounts, she and her husband and daughter – now a crucial part of Sewpportive’s team – weren't sure how the kits would go over at their first stop, Sianyanga primary. School was out of session, but they’d hoped to meet with a few teachers and administrators to deliver the kits in person.
As they pulled up, she was confused. What was this crowd? About 20 women were singing and clapping, and Sianyanga’s students were lined up in their pink-and-blue uniforms. Also present were the town’s elder men, who “participated as much as the women,” she says – “a beautiful thing to see.”
“I just was so overwhelmed. I couldn’t look at my daughter; I couldn’t look at my husband,” Phippen remembers, describing the two-hour celebration of song, speeches, and prayers that followed their arrival. “It was the most amazing experience.... I thought, my gosh, I got more out of this than we did for them.”
As the ceremony came to a close, students’ mothers and grandmothers, who had been dancing with handmade baskets, lined up to give them to Phippen. But with their thanks, they also had a request.
“Would you please show us how to sew these?” one asked.
Her question hints at a central point of MHM: Delivered pads are an important start – but not enough.
“The perfect sanitary pad is not going to solve this,” says Marni Sommer, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York. What’s needed is a holistic “package of interventions.”
When Phippen returns to Zimbabwe in July, she hopes to bring 300 kits, but Sewpportive Friends will also begin tackling the challenge from new angles. The group will teach local women how to make their own kits, for one. Other goals, if Sewpportive can garner enough support, are to provide more menstrual education, including resources to help teachers talk about puberty; to improve school restrooms; and to eventually move on to a new community, once people at the first two schools think they can sustain the initiatives on their own.
“If the girls don’t have to worry about their periods, they can then focus on their education and their community. If they’re focusing on education and community, they can become empowered, and when they’re empowered, the sky’s the limit. That’s kind of the basis of our model right there,” Perry says.
And “the sky’s the limit” feeling goes both ways.
“This has been such a blessing and such a wonderful experience,” Phippen says. “It’s life-changing for sure.”