Designer’s green solution to schoolgirl problem

2012-06-26 00:00

AT Hilton Intermediate School, the boys were ushered outside to play in the pale winter sun and the girls were asked to come in for a special lesson.

They were subdued and curious. The subject of this lesson was menstruation and at the end they received a gift that would last five years.

Sue Barnes who created Subz — reusable sanitary packs — began her mission over 18 months ago when she was asked by her daughter’s school to buy ordinary sanitary pads for the Indlela charity that supplies them to girls in rural areas.

More requests for donations came in. Barnes became curious and read up about the issue. She discovered that many girls missed schools when they were menstruating because they did not have money to buy sanitary pads and were embarrassed if they bled through onto their clothes.

If they missed one week every month they would be missing at least six to eight weeks of school a year, and this would cause many of them to drop out of school altogether. While supplying the girls with sanitary pads was one option, Barnes became convinced that there had to be a more sustainable way to solve the problem.

One of Jacob Zuma’s promises was to make sure that young women would have access to feminine hygiene products, just as men have had free access to condoms. Whether he can make this promise a reality remains to be seen.

Ironically, in first world countries there is a move away from using conventional sanitary pads and tampons because they are seen as environmentally unfriendly. More women are looking at alternatives.

Tampons and sanitary pads were manufactured in the sixties and while their design and comfort have improved, their threat to the environment has not.

The alternatives are fabric sanitary pads which are washable and can be purchased from selected outlets, or a menstrual cup which is made from latex or silicone and is inserted like a tampon.

Other projects in Africa have also championed the making of reusable fabric sanitary pads to help girls cope with their menstruation.

Barnes, who initially studied fashion design, believed that panties could be designed to absorb the menstrual blood flow. “The secret had to be in the material which had to be absorbent and also comfortable to the skin. I experimented and my two daughters were the guinea pigs.

“I tried one design where I made a gusset and a material pad was inserted into the gusset and then removed, but they didn’t like that. The final design that we tried is a material reusable pad that clips onto the crotch. The top layer draws the blood inside and remains dry, the middle layer absorbs the blood and the bottom layer is waterproof so it does not leak.”

These pads are fully washable and reusable. If they are washed properly, they can last up to five years and that is a huge saving on the cost of sanitary pads which can cost between R12 and R32 for an average pack.”

“I know girls are fussy, so I made them out of nice fabric, and they come in all sizes. Initially, I was aiming at helping rural schoolgirls, but all women who menstruate can use them. The added benefit is that they are hugely ecologically friendly.”

In an average woman’s life time, she will use 8 000 to 17 000 tampons or sanitary pads — enough to fill a small garden. They will not decompose and return to the earth.

Barnes raises money to go to rural schools to give her talk and to distribute her panties — called Subz — to needy girls.

She likes to discuss puberty and their bodies, so they feel comfortable about raising any other topics. Wearing an apron with the body parts drawn on, she explains to them how menstruating is part of becoming a woman.

Headmistress of Hilton Intermediate School Jabulile Mkhize said it was a wonderful idea: “Our girls are not from affluent homes. Some of their parents are not employed and even the cheapest sanitary pads are expensive for them.

“Some of them have been using toilet paper which they roll up and push inside. This is not healthy as the paper contains bleach and chemicals, and it leaves small pieces behind. I think this is the answer and they will be satisfied.”

The school had its panty packs sponsored by the Skho skho project, a health-care project aimed at raising health-care awareness for men. Jackie Pienaar, who raised the funds, said the men needed to be sensitised to women’s needs. “Our project found that many men did not seek medical care until it was too late and so we began to teach health issues to men in the community so they could speak openly about their problems.

“In many rural communities, the men cannot reach the clinics easily and so they leave it. We find that when men are taught about health issues in general, they become more aware of the needs of the women of their community. This translates into better access to family planning, cancer awareness and prevention of STDs and HIV.” Pienaar said in many patriarchal societies like ours, women only receive access to health care when men give their permission.

“Raising money for sanitary pads through a men’s health organisation may seem ironic, but men generally won’t want to spend their money on feminine hygiene products unless they understand why they are necessary, educating men about women’s health is just as important,” said Pienaar.

A week earlier, Barnes was addressing an entirely different audience — a group of mainly men who were part of the Umgungundlovu Sanitation Education Initiative. The initiative is run by Dusi Umgeni Conservation Trust (Duct) and is sponsored by the district municipality to find ways to educate people on ways to keep the sewerage system functioning.

One of the prime problems is the frequent blockages in the sewerage pipes that serve the Mpophomeni community. Duct volunteer Liz Taylor said the problems are mainly caused by incorrect dumping.

“Sanitary pads, disposable nappies and plastic bags all cause blockages in the pipes. When the pipes are blocked, they overflow causing the filth to run into the street and into Midmar Dam.”

Taylor said there are eight schools in Mpophomeni and their pipes are always blocked. “If we could get the girls to use these sanitary pads it would make a huge difference. Sue Barnes did her presentation and some of the men were giggling, but the main plumber came and thanked her profusely, and said it would make a huge difference to their job if these girls used the product.”

Barnes is constantly looking for sponsors who can help fund her project and help her distribute more panty packs to needy girls. She now has the panties and pads made by a clothing factory which uses her design. She also sells to people who are interested in purchasing them for ecofriendly reasons.

• A pack of three panties and nine reusable pads costs R150. Contact Sue Barnes at 083 661 8963.


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