There are many topics considered taboo, superstitious, or simply uncomfortable in various parts of the world—none more so than women’s reproductive and menstrual health. In recent years, groups have begun working to address this globally stigmatized issue and change the lives of women affected. One organization making leaps and bounds in this area is Femme International, a not-for-profit organization that uses education, open dialogue, and sustainable products to empower women around the world. Femme focuses their efforts in providing comprehensive health education workshops and feminine hygiene products to developing communities in East Africa.
Femme International’s Co-Founder & Executive Director, Sabrina Rubli, often shares her passion for empowering women to achieve their goals and reach their potential. She is a Blogger for the Huffington Post, a 2015 TEDx Speaker, and an expert in the field of menstrual health education. A resident of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Rubli studied Global Development at Queen’s University and did postgraduate work in International Development Project Management at Humber College. In addition to her work with Femme, Sabrina is a Health Promotion Activity Manager at Médecins Sans Frontières doing humanitarian work in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her example demonstrates how to effectively identify an issue and work towards a sustainable solution.
Impact on Women
Education on Menstruation
In East Africa, failure to address the science and normalcy of menstruation has perpetuated a shame spiral in young girls who are teased, shunned, and forced to miss school each month. In Kenya and Tanzania, women are isolated during their period due to the superstition that it causes them to be temporarily impure or cursed. Women in the Maasai culture are not even allowed to interact with livestock or prepare meals during their menstrual cycle for fear of contamination, sending the damaging message to these young girls that they are unclean and incapable of fulfilling the roles that are expected of them. In seeking to maintain privacy and avoid discomfort, society inadvertently leaves girls—particularly those in third world countries—unprepared to understand, anticipate, and handle menstruation.
“Every girl has the right to go to school every day of the month.” Students in isolation miss approximately 20% of the school year, a significant contributor to female literacy rates being 10-15% lower than boys their age. As girls fall farther behind in school, they are often unable to pursue higher education, or they become discouraged and give up altogether. Once they have left school, many are forced into marriage, kept home to help their mothers, and unable to improve their situation in life. In a global environment that is constantly pushing for gender equity in developing countries, a seemingly obvious women’s issue has been overlooked by activists.
Women’s physical health is also at risk. Sanitary pads are often considered a luxury, particularly in East Africa where a small package is the equivalent of one day’s wages. The expense requires that girls either miss more school to earn the money or do without. Additionally, these reusable products cause harm to the environment because most waste is disposed of in rivers or fire. Without access to safe and affordable feminine hygiene products, alternative methods are used which are uncomfortable, ineffective, and unsafe. Alternatives include damp cloth, leaves, mud, and dung—all of which can cause severe infection. To address each of these issues, Femme International distributes reusable pads and cups as they educate communities about positive female reproductive health.
Creating Lasting Change
The key to making a significant impact is the ability of the project to continue beyond its inception. The donation of money and products yields minimal results if the recipients aren’t educated on how to use them and taught about acceptable alternatives. It is important to consider the quality of goods being donated, as these tend to be more long-lasting and—in the case of feminine hygiene products—safer to use. Reusable products are more environmentally friendly, cost-effective, and only require a one-time distribution.
Another opportunity to perpetuate a project is to teach the locals how to execute it themselves. Not only does this provide meaningful work, but it also allows others to learn from members of their own community (who understand and respect tradition) to more effectively change social perceptions. Femme has found that an education-based approach is the best way to provide lasting change. As Sabrina so eloquently put it in her TEDx Talk, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Shared knowledge brings people together.
Preparing for Service Abroad
For those preparing to serve abroad, Rubli suggests doing thorough research. Identify the desired experience—whether it be focused on education, work, or service—and learn what options exist in that area. There are many opportunities available to develop leadership and industry knowledge, as well as donate time to organizations that address specific issues individuals may be passionate about. That being said, be cautious of preconceived ideas. Don’t allow expectations to taint an otherwise incredible learning experience.
When exploring the opportunities, match individual skills to the requirements of the work. Service should never be lower quality than it needs to be; you want to meet the need and meet it well. While working abroad, take the time to immerse yourself in the culture and how others think. It will benefit your efforts to help them and inspire a greater admiration for those you serve. Check out our interview with Sabrina Rubli here, and go to https://www.femmeinternational.org/ to learn more about Femme International’s inspiring work to improve women’s lives.