Ottawa

Menstruation initiative helping African women regain their freedom

Menstruation is part of life for women, but in some places in Africa, safe, sustainable products and education are hard to come by. A woman from Kemptville, Ont., is trying to change that.

'There wasn't the solution that we would expect to see when a problem affects millions of people'

Sabrina Rubli of Kemptville, Ont., is co-founder and executive director of Femme International. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

It's a regular part of life for women all over the world, but menstruation is still taboo in many places, a stigma that can prevent girls from going to school and affect their health.

Sabrina Rubli of Kemptville, Ont., discovered the problem while working on her post-graduate degree, researching water and sanitation in Kenya.

"We were five women in this group, so naturally as women ... thinking about water and sanitation and latrines and toilets, we thought about menstruation," Rubli, co-founder and executive director of Femme International, told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"And then we thought, what do women do when they get their periods and they're living in a nomadic community or a refugee camp or a slum or really rural areas where there aren't supermarkets and pharmacies that you can go to?"

Lack of education, unsafe products

They looked it up and found research indicating that menstruation was a barrier for women and girls. And while some small NGOs were working on localized programs to address it, there was no large-scale response.

Giving women that confidence, that freedom to feel as though they can do whatever they want to do, that's amazing.- Sabrina Rubli , co-founder of Femme International

"There wasn't the solution that we would expect to see when a problem affects millions of people," Rubli said.

The team contacted a friend in Nairobi, who confirmed the problem, and a few months later they travelled to Kenya to conduct a pilot project at four schools in Nairobi's Mathare slum.

"There wasn't enough education. Girls weren't learning really what it was ... and then the products available to them were not the safest," Rubli said.

They developed a curriculum to teach women and girls about their bodies, reproductive system, anatomy, menstrual cycle and hygiene, to "help women stay healthy and protect themselves."

A Kenyan woman fixes her veil in Nairobi's Mathare area on Aug. 10, 2017. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

WHO names program a top innovator in Africa

It's called The Twende Initiative: Available, Affordable, and Accessible Menstruation, and it makes reusable cups and pads available at affordable prices, conducts workshops and training sessions on how to use them, and educates and engages boys and men about menstruation to help de-stigmatize it.

The World Health Organization just named the initiative one of the top 30 innovators in Africa. Rubli's sister, Jennifer Rubli, also works on it.

For Sabrina Rubli, it's rewarding work. At their first pilot in the Mathare slum, they met a 19-year-old woman who loved to swim but stopped whenever she was on her period, thinking her body would contaminate the pool and make people sick.

She didn't have anything to use, so they gave her a reusable menstrual cup.

"She was blown away by the fact that she could now swim, and the word that she used was, 'Now I feel free to do what I want.' And it's interesting because that word 'free' has come up so many times over the last six years with women in Kenya, women in Tanzania," Sabrina Rubli said.

"Giving women that confidence, that freedom to feel as though they can do whatever they want to do, that's amazing."

CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

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