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BBF Promotes Self-Care and Sustainability for Girls in Zimbabwean Communities

PHOTO 2023 11 09 13 33 57

Thanks to a grant from BBF in 2023, a twelve-year-old program in Zimbabwe is helping more girls sew their own reusable sanitary supplies to avoid missing school during their monthly cycles.  The program, associated with the United Methodist mission in Nyadire, continues to grow and achieve sustainability.  Its results are leading to new opportunities for education and ways to help the community meet its basic needs.

BBF asked the director of the program, Bonnie Lawson of Pittsburgh, to answer a few questions about its progress and potential.  Bonnie is a former supply chain executive at Bayer Material Science who serves on the board of trustees of the Brother’s Brother Foundation (BBF). Serving seven schools in or near Nyadire, her team’s effort is known as the Girl Empowerment Pad (GEP) program.

Q:  What are the goals of the Girl Empowerment Pad (GEP) program?

First, I’d like to thank BBF for its support, which enabled the local purchase of cotton fabric used in sewing kits provided to each female student we serve.  They use these kits to make their own sanitary napkins and avoid the terrible consequences of missing school for lack of hygienic protection.  I also credit BBF with “feeding and growing” the GEP program by providing shipping support when we were sourcing most of our materials in the United States. 

A:  The goals of GEP are to: (1) Keep girls in school during their menstrual cycle to prevent learning loss; (2) Provide participating students tailoring skills; and (3) Offer culturally- and age-appropriate health, hygiene and menstrual education.

Q: How did the GEP program start?

A:  In 2011, volunteers from The Nyadire Connection (TNC) mission team based in Pittsburgh visited Nyadire schools.  TNC, which offers school fee sponsorships, learned that a lack of sanitary napkins contributed to an increase in absenteeism for female students.  As in other nations, the country’s poverty limits access to menstrual products.  While 88% of women and girls use disposable products in urban areas, only 68% do so in rural areas according to WHO and UNICEF.  Disposable sanitary pads are a luxury item for many Zimbabweans.

Back in Pittsburgh, TNC volunteers (mostly women) sprang into action when they heard of this need.  They initiated what became a multi-church, multi-sector grass roots response that eventually encompassed groups such as church sewing circles, high school clubs, craft stores, and the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania. 

Q:  What was the Zimbabwean reception, given the sensitivity of the topic and local culture?

A: As the program took shape, we were careful to respect Zimbabwean preferences, not only with regard to a napkin pattern but also to health education. Together we chose and integrated into sewing classes a culturally and developmentally appropriate book on the menstrual cycle.  This book was written by Zimbabwean author Annie Kanyemba, and is called Growing Up in School.   

GEP program teachers in Zimbabwe expressed thanks to us in responses like these:

  • Our children in the pad program will live to remember this, as their lives were changed for the better.
  • Due to economic hardships, parents are very much relieved by your donations toward the girl child.
  • It is so difficult here for children to discuss [health] with a [teacher].  You gave us a breakthrough.  Pupils confide in us now.  They are not even shy to ask for emergency kits.
  • The program has boosted their confidence, as they can now attend school even on their period days.

Q:  How has the program evolved?

A:  The first volunteers made pre-sewn, reusable cotton sanitary napkins and sent them overseas to gauge the attitudes of teachers and students.  After receiving an enthusiastic response, the Pittsburghers downloaded patterns and asked their Zimbabwean partners to choose a napkin pattern for them to sew on their own.  The Americans also converted donated electric sewing machines to manual operation as appropriate, and sought fabric, money donations, and recruits for “sewing parties.” These parties resulted in boxes of “GEP kits” being delivered to Nyadire through BBF.

The “GEP kits” are one-quart Ziploc bags with fabric and materials for three pads; needle and thread; underwear; a bar of soap; and instructions in English and Shona for maintaining the pads and making them using the hand-sewing option.  In class, Zimbabwean teachers also taught students to make pads using sewing machines.

It was clear that students gained confidence and skills (and stayed in school) by making their own pads.  Likewise, to promote further independence, by 2020 U.S. volunteers began sending teachers unassembled materials so they could make their own kits.    

Since then, the program has a dedicated purchasing agent for domestic procurement of supplies.  Teachers have extended instruction from pad making to sewing school uniforms and other garments and household goods, and have incorporated male students who wish to learn tailoring skills.  The program is also exploring a “train the trainer” approach via the establishment of a GEP sewing scholarship (see below).

Q: What measurable results can you cite for this twelve-year-old program?

To date, across seven primary schools in or near Nyadire, more than:

  • 10,000 pads or kits have been distributed;
  • 100 sewing machines have been donated;
  • 20 teachers/leaders have been trained to teach students to sew pads (at least two per school, plus teachers at “waiting mother” clinics served by TNC);
  • 4000 copies of the book Growing Up in School (on puberty and menstrual management) have been distributed; and
  • More than 4000 girls have participated in this life-changing, confidence-building program. 

Q: Do you have any observations to add to these results?

A:  Definitely I would highlight the resilience of our Zimbabwean partners.  When they experienced the onslaught of COVID-19, some of the fabric we had sent over was repurposed to make face masks that afford protection from disease.  They had just received this fabric in a BBF-shipped container in March 2020; they put it to excellent use, pivoting to serve the entire community.  To me, this engagement validates the program’s approach of imparting general sewing skills that encourage self-sufficiency.

I would also say that the program’s success so far is in part due to the fact that it evolved organically, from the ground up, and that it had full support and participation in both Nyadire and Pittsburgh.  Women here simply saw the need and chipped in to support of the basic needs of their sisters, and their sisters responded and ‘took the baton’ to implement the program and move it forward.

Finally, the help and expertise of TNC partners such as BBF was critical.  BBF supported shipping for not only GEP but all the other TNC programs.  Nobody can do it alone; it takes different talents in various networks to make things happen.

Q:  What are GEP’s current needs?

A: We want to plan for a day when GEP is completely independent and self-sustaining.  We are immensely proud of our team, which now “owns” 100% of the operational portion of the program.  The program no longer incurs shipping costs or storage fees.  Through local procurement, funding goes directly to the community, supporting local businesses and entrepreneurs. 

This successful transfer means our donor model has changed from an in-kind, delivery system (e.g., fabric shipped overseas) to a financial approach sustained by cash donations for local purchasing and training. 

To achieve sustainability, our twelve-year-old program needs more than just materials.  We envision a need to cultivate new leaders as sewing and hygiene teachers move on.  So we are exploring a sewing scholarship that would enable recipients to attend the Tabudira or other nearby vocational school to earn a certificate in tailoring.  Scholarship recipients would agree to perform community service by teaching sewing at one of the participating GEP schools.

The program was built on small donors, and their support continues to be critical to the continuation of the program as we seek diverse sources of support.  

We have developed the following categories for our donors: 

  • $50 supports one girl per year with GEP supplies
  • $500 provides secure storage for sewing machines and materials at each school
  • $1000 buys enough locally sourced material to make 200 GEP kits for girls
  • $1000 supports a single teacher scholarship; $3000 starts a scholarship endowment
  • $3000 covers materials to start or support a school’s entire GEP program for a year
  • $3000 buys 1000 reprints of Growing Up in School

Q:  What are future plans?

A: To generate income to purchase GEP materials, Nyamhara Primary School has proposed a Girl Empowerment Garden.  Offered by school leaders and families, the proposal reflects the value of the GEP program in the community.  They will provide and manage a 1.25-acre plot for a pilot farming project whose proceeds will be funneled into the school’s GEP program. 

Specialized agricultural instruction will focus on three farming improvements.  These are: (1) Increased yields; (2) Crop selection that reflects the changing climate; and (3) Identification of crops for solar dehydration to make stored food available in winter and off-harvest times (which reduces food insecurity). 

Like the GEP program, we envision the pilot will serve as a model for the other schools in the GEP network.  And like the GEP program, we envision it will have a ‘multiplier effect,’ because when girls suffer or are missing school, the entire community suffers.  When girls are healthy and fed, the entire community thrives.

Q:  Anything else?

A:  For those who would like to donate, please mail a check with “GEP” in the memo line to:

GEP Program, The Nyadire Connection
c/o Bonnie Lawson
Christ United Methodist Church
44 Highland Road
Bethel Park, PA 15102

And:  Thanks again to BBF for the shipping support and grant; additional help is always welcome until GEP is self-sustaining!

This young girl is from the Hearing Impaired School. Her name is Natasha.
Girls sewing pads by hand. Essential feature for rural areas
Girl trading Growing up in school book. The language is Shona. We also provide this in English
The Geo team at Nyadire primary
The girl empowerment farm team
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