Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, more than 1 in 10 girls miss up to 20% of the school year because of their periods. In South Africa, that means more than 200,000 girls are missing large swaths of school time.
These girls often don’t have access to sanitary pads, resorting to using materials like rags, newspapers, or bark to manage their periods. Other times, they’re deterred from going to school because of pervasive cultural stigmas surrounding menstruation — stigmas that prevent menstruating girls from touching water or cooking, going to religious ceremonies, participating in community events, and more, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
For Ramona Kasavan, these barriers are unacceptable. She grew up in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and saw firsthand how menstruation unfairly derailed girls’ lives, making them more vulnerable to child marriage, violence, health complications, and poverty.
After getting a degree in marketing and management, she founded a sanitary pad and menstruation awareness company called Mimi Women to fix the problem from the ground up.
“This taboo leads people to say, ‘Let’s take an ostrich approach and not talk about it,’” she told Global Citizen. “Having conversations about menstruation cycles and sex is typically quite a problem even though there’s a high rate of teenage pregnancy.”
Kasavan’s first objective was to expand access to sanitary pads by creating low-cost products. She then wanted to make sure pads were widely available so girls would be able to buy pads whenever they needed them. She remembers how, growing up, stores selling pads would often be more than 10 miles away.
Mimi Women enlisted local representatives in disadvantaged areas who would be able to sell pads at low prices within communities. In doing so, the company expanded access and women were able to begin careers.
And then by openly debunking stigmas and normalizing menstruation, girls would feel comfortable talking about and dealing with their periods, Kasavan said.
“The problem is based on the fact that the price of pads is too high for consumers and also because the stigma of asking for help is pretty large,” Kasavan said. “The problem was about creating accessibility and that’s what the business does.”
Since Mimi Women was started in 2014, the company has distributed more than 1.5 million pads to 37,500 school girls.
But Mimi Women’s approach is more holistic than just providing sanitary pads. In fact, that’s only the first phase of empowering girls.
Kasavan said that Mimi Women promotes educational programs, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship.
“I wanted Mimi’s bigger picture to be to create conversations based on ‘how do we integrate and create change?’” she said. “It’s not just about selling pads; it’s about financial literacy, other things coming together to create 360 change.”
In a country where more than half of the population lives in poverty, Mimi Women is also trying to tackle other stigmas surrounding women in South Africa.
“My newest project is the rehabilitation of sex workers,” Kasavan said. “The saddest thing about it is sex workers always tell me that when they get their period they’re hungry because they can’t transact.
“They’re also trying to survive in poverty,” she said. “It’s amazing how we judge prostitutes and sex workers.”
The most rewarding part of the work for Kasavan, however, are the small moments of self-esteem she sees in girls when they feel empowered.
“It’s just the way it gives girls dignity,” she said. “It makes everyone comfortable.”
The Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 is presented and hosted by The Motsepe Foundation, with major partners House of Mandela, Johnson & Johnson, Cisco, Nedbank, Vodacom, Coca Cola Africa, Big Concerts, BMGF Goalkeepers, Eldridge Industries, and associate partners HP and Microsoft.