Empowering Girls with Granny’s Technology
|by Kim Epp Frenette with thanks to Elsa Zollars, July/August 2012|
Self-consciousness, excitement or apprehension, if you are female, you probably remember your feelings at the milestone of first menses. One thing you probably didn’t worry about was missing a week of school each month because you didn’t have supplies, or even panties, to deal with the mess. For those of us in developed countries it is almost impossible to imagine the chaos and consequences caused by lack of access to the ‘feminine products’ aisle at Walgreens.
Kathy Surma of Bridgeville has a good imagination. When she discovered through the documentary Tapestries of Hope* that girl orphans in poorer parts of Africa often miss school during menstruation, her reaction was visceral. “I felt horrified for these girls and felt I had to do something,” she recalls. “I couldn’t just watch the film and leave.” Surma says when she tells other women about the issue, “It strikes a cord.” She surmises that is why so many women in the Pittsburgh area have become involved with a project to help these adolescent girls gain some control over their lives and the cycle of their bodies.
Surma had already made two mission trips to Zimbabwe through The Nyadire Connection (TNC) and her church, Mt. Lebanon United Methodist. She realized that in a society that marginalizes females, paying for sanitary products is a low priority. Missing a week of school per month means girls fall behind or drop out, continuing a cycle of marginalization.
She raised her concerns during a Bible study class, sparking Caryl Drabick, of Mt Lebanon, to scour the internet, find a pattern, and start sewing washable cloth sanitary products. Other women became interested. Barb Greway of St. Paul’s UMC, Allison Park, used a different pattern and packaged her version in a Ziploc bag along with girls’ underwear. Rev. Lois Swestyn and Diane Welty of Liberty UMC in Washington, PA will be taking donated fabric, fabric scissors, and underwear on their mission trip this summer. Diane left an open suitcase near the church doors all spring to collect donated underwear.
Some of the sewn products have already been tucked into backpacks for rural orphaned girls in Nyadire United Methodist Mission’s Home of Hope School Sponsorship Outreach Program. Instructions on their use were included in Shona, the native language spoken in Nyadire, thanks to a translation done by Sandra Matashayou, the Coordinator of the Western PA United Methodist Church Zimbabwe Partnership. According to Kathy Surma, it is already having an impact. “Girls have been going to school that wouldn’t normally be going.”
From the beginning the concept was ‘not to provide the fish but to teach the fishing.’ To be sustainable it needed to be driven by the people in Zimbabwe and suited to the reality of their life. “The whole idea is for them to own it,” Surma says.
Emancipate Mavoro, the Home Economics teacher and girl’s supervisor at Nyadire Mission High School, was on board the moment Kathy Surma showed her the Pittsburgh sanitary products. Emancipate was excited that the girls could make washable products and appreciated all the materials that were sent. There is even talk of applying for a TNC micro-loan that would allow this project to develop into a cottage industry.
Aware of the spotty and unpredictable electricity supply in Zimbabwe, Bonnie Lawson, part of Surma’s Bible study group, researched the best way to retrofit sewing machines with hand cranks and treadles. Lawson found Singer models dating back to the early 1900’s, turned her garage into a workshop, and started rebuilding. “One was so old they would have used whale oil,” laughs Lawson. “I think they stuffed an entire whale in there. It was one of the most disgusting things I’ve touched!”
With a PhD in chemistry Lawson jokes that this is “totally not my area of expertise!” But she loves puzzle solving so she searched the internet for ‘how-to’ details and spoke to people all over the globe. One man in Virginia sent her detailed schematics; an organization in England called Tool for Self Reliance provided expertise and manuals. Others donated suitable machines. Lawson was overwhelmed by the generosity; “people just gave,” she says.
Lawson sees the bigger picture in the efforts to address this very basic issue of reliable sanitary products. “My passion is girls’ education,” she explains. “It is the best chance anyone has in re-establishing these societies. In order for a real change to occur you have to work with the women of the community.”
Lawson has retrofitted and repaired more than nine machines to date. Most will be included in the TNC container (sent by Brother’s Brother Foundation) to Nyadire Mission; one is earmarked for the Girl Child Network (profiled in the Tapestries of Hope film) so the abused girls can learn to sew their own products.
Back in Pittsburgh, a group of Upper St Clair High School girls, who also saw “Tapestries of Hope” and met its founder Betty Makoni*, formed a club, GEP – Girls Empowerment Project. Alex and Julia LeClaire and others raised funds to buy materials to send to the Girl Child Network for their sewing project.
There is something poignant about the complexity and interconnectedness of this project. Women (and some men) of all ages and many cultures, separated by thousands of miles, are working hand in hand using the latest internet technology to implement 100-year old mechanical technology in order address a situation as old as humankind. They are bringing to the next generation of young women something great grandma might have used so those girls can achieve self-reliance and the hope of a modern future.
When Betty Makoni, the founder of Girl Child Network visited the South Hills in fall of 2011 she spoke to the women involved with the project and christened the items “Girls’ Empowerment Pads.” Something our great grandmothers used every month is the key to a stronger future; who knew!
*(read our October 2011 story by Linda Ambroso on the local connection to that film)