My story | 'I saw girls using socks with sand as pads – this is what I'm doing about it'

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Founder of Dear Bella, Matefo Morakeng.
Founder of Dear Bella, Matefo Morakeng.

She thought she had seen it all. After all, she is a woman who has worked with disadvantaged communities for a while. 

But when she came across young girls who had no idea what a sanitary towel was, she was shocked. 

What had they been using all this time? 

Social entrepreneur Matefo Morakeng  (45) decided to do something about it. 

While pads might seem like a basic need, she says many girls and women in rural or disadvantaged areas cannot afford them. 

Reasons for this vary. For girls who come from broken homes, their parents or guardian parents would rather buy alcohol than give them money for toiletries. For others, when the time of the month comes, they have to ask for pads or borrow money to buy them.

“Then there are those who simply have no money. And to get basic toiletries, it means girls have to sleep with men,” she tells us.

A few months ago, Matefo donated sanitary towels to schoolgirls in Lesotho and what she discovered there left her at a loss for words. Girls of menstruating age didn’t know what a pad was, they had never used one.

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“They had never seen a sanitary pad. So can you imagine what they had been using before?”

Many impoverished girls use dangerous and unhealthy items such as old rags, socks, t-shirts, even newspapers. Some of them end up staying home when they have periods.

One of the most shocking stories she came across still breaks her heart to this day.

“There was a girl would use a sock stuffed with sand as a pad,” Matefo says.

Matefo was born in Lesotho. After ten years of living in Free State, South Africa,  she decided to try and make sanitary pads affordable and accessible here and in her home country. 

She was helping women living in rural areas in the province come up with income-generating initiatives when she realised that sanitary pads never make it on their shopping lists. 

The initiative involved buying groceries in bulk as a group and then selling to the community.

“They told me they use prevention injection so that they don’t menstruate,” Matefo says.

These are women who earned about R600 from various projects they were involved in. 

With that money, they would have to put food on the table and take care of their households and pads were too expensive.

She immediately started doing her research to find out how dire the situation was in the community.

Dear Bella was inspired by girls and women who could not afford and access sanitary pads.

After calling rural schools, she found that girls were really struggling and dependent on donations to make it through their cycles. 

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It was then Dear Bella was born.

“I looked around and found a manufacturer in the country, I started building the product. I wanted the product to be of good quality but affordable. Just because someone is poor, it doesn’t mean that they must get sub-standard things, especially when donated to them,” she says.

The project became so personal to Matefo that she named the pads after her mother.

“I wanted this to mean something deeper. More than just a business opportunity or only about helping people. It had to be rooted to something I would want to honour and to be reminded of why I started.”

"I wanted this to mean something deeper. More than just a business opportunity or only about helping people. It had to be rooted to something I would want to honour and to be reminded of why I started."

“I am a person who has always been uncomfortable with injustices. I always put myself in the shoes of a young woman who doesn’t have much. 

“For me, it is about what footprint I want to leave for the next person that would make them be a better human being.

“This was a window I used to get to address social injustice. I always say what is special about the product is what the product is intended to do. I want a black child to hold the pad and know the story behind it,” Matefo says.

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The product currently retails for more than half what other pads go for. 

Matefo says parents need to talk to their children and explain the menstrual cycle, what it means because there is still a lot of misinformation out there and when children do not get it from a reliable source, it becomes problematic.

“Simply, there is no shame in menstruation. Parents need to encourage conversations on menstrual hygiene and related issues,” she says.

Matefo has partnered with The Nelson Mandela Hospital and Nelson Mandela Foundation, to make it possible for more young girls to access sanitary towels with the #TurnUpForGirls initiative.

"Through this collaboration, we will be donating sanitary towels to the fund for the benefit of the young girls who are patients at the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital (NMCH) continually."

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