Bleeding in Kenya: Turning Research into Local Empowerment through a cloth pads project.
What was I doing there?
First off, hello! I’m Morgan, a new volunteer with Lilypads and this story shares my first big effort to improve menstruation experiences for others. I was working on my Master’s of Public Health, which required in-field experience. Logically, being from the Midwest (of USA), I thought Kenya would be the best place for this. Realistically, I have always wanted to travel to Kenya and the potential that I could do meaningful research for a local community there seemed like a perfect opportunity. I was connected with Dandelion Africa, who were open to hosting me for this experience.
Where exactly? (Dandelion Africa)
Dandelion Africa is a non-profit grass-roots organization that provides health and education to many villages in Nakuru County (Rift Valley / Western Kenya). They focus on women’s health and empowerment, making my desire to study menstruation fitting. While they already have a menstrual product distribution scheme, I worked with them to develop questions for the community to discover if there was more we could do to better support menstruators.
How did it work out?
I set out with a research plan focused around girls’ experiences with menstruation in school. When I arrived, all the girls were on school holidays…for almost the entirety of my six weeks there. Bad planning, right? Maybe, but it shifted the focus from girls’ experiences to women’s experiences.
This shift allowed me to explore the experiences that are often left out of research and to ask different questions. The interview questions were developed in conjunction with Dandelion Africa to ensure that I was culturally sensitive and beneficial to everyone involved.
What did I learn?
This might be obvious, but I learned that women struggled with as many menstrual issues as the young girls I had read about in my pre-trip research. I think it’s assumed that by the time girls are out of school, they magically are able to menstruate with dignity.
This is not true.
- Gaps in knowledge. Like knowing what is “normal” for them as an individual and when they should seek out professional health care still exist.
- Gaps in access to hygienic products. These include soap, water, menstrual fluid collection or absorption material, and privacy.
- Gaps in communication with others – friends, parents, kids, and romantic partners still exist.
Sorry, what still exists?!
- Shame, isolation, misinformation, and lack of access to hygiene necessities.
- Incredible resilience and strength to continue working towards their dreams, goals, and caring for others in their life.
What happened after the formal research?
I returned to the States knowing I would be back in Kenya someday soon, I had been welcomed into the community through Dandelion Africa. I continued to talk with them to see what I could do to improve menstruation experiences.
One of the topics that came up during the research interviews was having reusable menstrual products. Many of the women said they were interested in reusable cloth pads and menstrual cups. I can’t make menstrual cups, but I can make reusable cloth pads.
So, I worked on designing and making pads specifically for Dandelion Africa to distribute. By the time I returned to Kenya, I had made nearly 90 cloth pads.
We distributed the cloth pads and asked the women to give us feedback. The feedback was helpful to make sure that we would make a product that suited these women in their lives.
Once we finalised a design, I taught one local seamstress, hired by Dandelion Africa. Together, we searched the local markets for local materials. Because flying to Kenya is expensive and although I am always keen, I simply don’t think it’s reasonable for them to not be able to make this an entirely self-sustaining program. The next time I was in Kenya, I taught the student seamstresses at the local polytechnic school. Some curious male students offered to help with some of the hand stitching fixes!
And now, Stitch Sisters Dandelion Africa
The reusable menstrual cloth pad program is called “Stitch Sisters Dandelion Africa” and is still successful today. In fact, they decided to start making reusable cloth diapers/nappies for babies because the materials are essentially the same as a cloth pad. They have taken the knowledge I shared with them and have transformed it to better help their community.
I have continued to research menstruation and solidified the understanding that most menstruators face the same struggles. Regardless of location, age, and culture, menstruators still often feel shame, isolation, and struggle to care for themselves at certain times at the month. This is why I keep researching it, trying to figure out a way to make it better, for everyone.
It’s been over a year now since I last visited (due to COVID-19), but I will go back. As I continue to research menstruation, I have new information to share with them. And I cannot wait to see what other amazing work they’ve accomplished during our time apart.
Written by: Morgan Ludington
January 19, 2021
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