There are currently 80 incarcerated women who don’t have the resources to manage their periods with pride and dignity at the Mawelawela Women’s Correctional Institution in eSwatini, a small country in Southern Africa.
That's why this weekend, Days for Girls International (DfG), an organization that offers menstrual health solutions to underserved people around the world, is setting up an enterprise in Mawelawela to help incarcerated people sustainably take care of themselves, and their communities, with education and products.
On Saturday, April Haberman, a DfG development officer based in Washington State, is taking her daughter and five other high school girls to bring sustainable menstrual hygiene management kits to women at Mawelawela. The eSwatini country director will follow up on their visit and teach the women how to sew and assemble kits to generate income. The program will be the first to give incarcerated people a chance to earn a living while in a correctional facility by making the kits. Once they leave, they have some savings and a skillset to provide for themselves.
“The government doesn’t supply anything,” Haberman told Global Citizen, referring to the lack of menstrual hygiene management and personal hygiene products in eSwatini correctional facilities.
“If family and friends aren’t supporting menstrual hygiene management, they resort to using the mattresses or newspapers to manage their periods,” she explained.
When incarcerated people don’t have access to adequate menstrual hygiene management, which is a common occurrence, they are at risk of infections, the spread of diseases, and causing plumbing issues. At least 500 million women and girls globally lack adequate facilities for menstrual hygiene management (MHM). The exact number is unknown, but the lack of resources causes many young girls to miss school, and women to miss work, which harms their potential for economic growth.
DfG consulted thousands of girls and women around the world and went through 27 iterations to design several versions of menstrual hygiene kits. Many people don't have access to clean water to manage their periods safely, which is why the kits include waterproof shields and absorbent liners that use little water and limit waste. The products last three years, dry quickly, and save money compared to using disposable menstrual products. Deluxe versions of the kit come with washcloths, soap, and underwear.
The organization isn’t only focused on menstrual products. DfG doesn’t distribute kits anywhere without an ambassador of women’s health training, which covers basic anatomy, puberty, menstruation, sexually transmitted infections, self-defense, and trafficking.
DfG first started servicing incarcerated people at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington. Washington State provides incarcerated people with period products, but five years ago, the organization visited a correctional facility there on a whim to teach incarcerated women how to make kits. The incarcerated women responded well to the initiative and the program grew from there.
Now at the Washington Corrections Center, incarcerated people can't wait to join the program. In order to sew for DfG, they need to have three years of good behavior in a row to ensure the safety of those working and other incracerated people as they use sewing machines and other dangerous tools.
Incarcerated people all around the world –– in countries such as Cambodia, Zimbabwe, and Uganda, as well as within the US –– are receiving DfG kits. Kit distribution depends on the size of the correctional facility, but DfG usually delivers between 50 and several hundred. The organization says it reaches over 1 million women and girls and over 110 countries, and it has over 15 enterprise leadership programs where people learn how to generate income by making and selling kits.
These rockstar women (and many others not pictured) have been working so hard. Their new enterprise in Senegal made 60 kits just in the first two weeks of establishment and they already received an order to make 200 more! Congrats team! #dfgspotlightpic.twitter.com/HGAjlfbHOP— Days for Girls (@DaysForGirls) March 17, 2019
One DfG advocate, Julie Tsoukalas, focuses on working with the Deaf community in Zambia, where harmful myths about menstruation circulate.
“If a male member of your family sees your period blood, they will go blind,” is one belief Tsouk heard. People who menstruate in Zambia sometimes resort to transactional sex or sexual favors to pay for or receive sanitary products, Tsouk said. She also visited one correctional facility in Zambia in January, to distribute kits where the water is shut off at night, making it difficult for incarcerated people to manage their periods safely.
Haberman recalls speaking during a presentation about a Washington correctional facility’s contributions to nonprofit organizations over the course of the year. An incarcerated woman told Haberman one word included in the slide about DfG’s impact resonated with her.
“The word that stuck out for me was ‘freedom,’” Haberman said the woman told her. “I love sewing for you because I don’t have my freedom any longer, but sewing for Days for Girls and giving this kit to someone else, I can give freedom to someone else, and that makes me happy.”
DfG also distributes kits to people who are preparing to leave correctional facilities. Once incarcerated people are released, their options are limited, Haberman said. If they have a criminal record it may be harder to find employment, and they don’t always have the income to purchase menstrual hygiene products.
Talking about menstrual hygiene management is the first step toward educating others, normalizing menstruation, and getting people involved in advocacy, Haberman said.
Thirty @TVAelementary students are assembling 100 washable feminine hygiene kits to girls and women in Ghana - in support of Days for Girls international charitable organization. @CTVWindsorpic.twitter.com/VgxuyQbGEy— Alana Hadadean (@AHadadeanCTV) November 22, 2018
“We often say people would rather talk about diarrhea than periods,” she said. “Toilet paper is provided when you have diarrhea –– imagine having diarrhea five straight days and not having toilet paper. It’s the same thing when a woman menstruates for an average of five days.”
Haberman encourages people to host fundraisers, donate, join one of DfG’s 1,000 chapters, or start one to stand up for menstrual equity.
“It’s not a luxury,” Haberman said. “It’s a basic human need that we’re meeting and it brings dignity and better health.”