February 10, 2021 | View All Stories

Sewing Machines Provide Income and Safe Hygiene Products for Women in Ethiopia

Recently I took a phone call from a woman inquiring about ministries that distribute feminine hygiene products in other countries. She had heard about the difficulties young ladies experience because of the lack of these products. Some miss a week of school each month because of their monthly cycle, causing them to fall behind in their studies and even contemplate early marriage. Others dig through trash and use dirty rags, leaves, straw, or other materials that cause terrible infections, rashes, and further problems. The woman who called was eager to be a part of the solution.

The Problem

I knew that the sewing team at Advancing Native Missions had been sending handmade, reusable pads to different ministries abroad for several years. The sewing center based at ANM’s headquarters in Afton, Virginia, made them — about 1,500 total — and we shipped them from our warehouse. While I was aware of the importance of what we were doing to meet the need, I did not realize the extent of the demand for feminine hygiene products worldwide. I also was unaware of all the difficulties young women experience in other countries and the misconceptions that cause more problems. Was there a better way to help these ladies in need?

As I researched this issue, particularly in Ethiopia and other African countries, I felt overwhelmed by the women’s plight. They experience no privacy in coed restrooms with doorless stalls, no way to dispose of products, and no water to clean themselves or wash reusable pads. There is a significant stigma against girls at menarche, ignorance of why they menstruate, fear of them becoming pregnant, and judgment for their presumed sexual immorality. When feminine hygiene products are available, ladies typically have no training in using them and often no underwear to attach them. I felt traumatized just reading about how young women are teased, bullied, ostracized, and misunderstood for experiencing the most basic, recurring, natural aspect of female adulthood. The lack of education in these regions has gone on for generations.

One UNICEF article reports that, even after rooms had been built for young ladies to change feminine hygiene products, the rooms were kept locked, and only a male teacher had the key. Asking for access to the rooms made girls feel vulnerable and embarrassed as others became aware that they were menstruating. On top of that, the rooms had no water, trash receptacles, or supplies for their use. The rooms built to aid the young ladies had only aggravated their situation.

Another article exposes the inferiority of feminine hygiene products sold in third-world countries, which cause rashes and infections. One female doctor from Africa discovered these discomforts were not the norm once she visited the United States and tried better products from the same company. 

A Solution

I decided to discuss the problems with Meseret Workelul, the ANM Assistant Regional Director for Africa and an Ethiopian native. Meseret followed up with the woman I spoke with over the phone and shared that she planned to develop an Ethiopian cottage industry for producing feminine hygiene products when COVID-19 hit her country. She said it was cheaper to purchase the fabric and thread for making reusable pads in Ethiopia than to ship pads from the U.S. I asked, “Why reusable products? Wouldn’t disposable products be easier and safer to use?” Meseret answered that disposable products are more expensive, and because of taboos, limited access to water, and the lack of landfills, they also add to Ethiopia’s excessive waste materials.  

According to Meseret, feminine hygiene products are available in Ethiopia’s urban areas, but the price is so high that most ladies cannot afford to purchase them. If they must choose between paying for rent or food and buying disposable pads, women will choose the former. In rural areas, where 85% of the population lives, feminine hygiene products aren’t available. Meseret believes the best way to help Ethiopia’s ladies is by starting a home business specializing in inexpensive, reusable products. The company would meet the local need for products and supply income for those sewing them. Micro Financing could help get the project started.

In 2019, with the help of ANM’s Christmas catalog, Meseret purchased two sewing machines for the venture. She hopes to buy ten more machines and plans on renting a home in Ethiopia where ladies can be employed making the reusable products.

Meeting this immediate need for safe and inexpensive feminine hygiene products and then educating young girls and women about caring for their bodies would help reverse generations of stigma and suffering in Ethiopia. The cottage industry would supply part of the need and provide income for ladies working in the industry. Would you consider being part of the solution to this problem by giving to the project?


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Sue Morris is a writer with ANM's Marketing team.

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