Source: EqualTimes (EN/FR)

As soon as you enter the workshop, you can see bags containing a large quantity of sanitary towels. On this September morning, 1,300 locally produced pads are ready to be delivered.

“Today, we are only doing the cutting. We will set aside another day for sewing,” explains a seamstress to justify the noise of the scissors that can be heard in the room. This is where Maisha Pads, a range of reusable sanitary towels made from fabrics recovered from the local market in Bukavu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), have been manufactured since 2018.
“They are made from 100 per cent renewable cotton and polyester fibres, as well as absorbent and waterproof materials. They are cleaned before sewing, to ensure the towels do not cause illness,” explains Douce Namwezi, director of Uwezo Afrika Initiative, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) that launched the initiative. The Bukavu-based NGO campaigns for the empowerment of women and youth and for access to the right to sexual and reproductive health.
In the DRC, access to sanitary towels remains a headache for women. According to a U-Report survey, 31 per cent of respondents considered lack of money to be the main difficulty they faced during their periods.
For the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “limited access to safe ways to manage menstrual hygiene and to medication for pain limits women’s and girls’ employment opportunities.”
In an effort to improve conditions for women, the Uwezo Afrika Initiative distributes its sanitary pads to schools, orphanages and low-income families. “When they are surprised by their period at school, many girls are forced to go home and do not return to school until their period is over. With our solution, these girls can last a whole day,” explains Namwezi.
There are also health benefits. “When I was using the towels we import, I used to develop allergies. Now that I use these, all that is gone,” says Maisha Pads customer Thérèse Lushoka. Another advantage is the reduction of waste. “With imported towels, you can throw away three towels a day and pollute the environment. This is not the case with the Maisha Pads, where a batch of three pads can be used for a year,” explains Namwezi. In three years, Uwezo Africa has produced more than 30,000 pads that have been distributed in the city of Bukavu and the province of South Kivu.
Employment opportunities for women
In the largely patriarchal Congolese society, much of the formal work is done by men. “In the DRC, the vast majority of women are forced to do nothing but housework,” explains Marcelline Budza, coordinator of Rebuild Women’s Hope, a NGO that works to empower Congolese women through coffee growing. Her organisation has set up a women’s house where women are taught how to cut cloth, sew, bake and become leaders.
“The time spent on unpaid housework has an impact on the possibility for women to dedicate themselves to productive work and for adolescent girls to be able to pursue their studies and follow their desires and ambitions,” says a report released by UNICEF entitled Gender Equality: Where are we in the DRC?. The Maisha Pad project generates eight direct jobs. “From the acquisition of raw materials to distribution, we involve women in the entire production chain. Thanks to what they earn, they participate in the solidarity mutuals, save some money and contribute to household expenses,” explains Namwezi.
According to the World Bank, 73 per cent of the Congolese population lived on less than US$1.90 a day in 2018. “With the reusable towels, I only spend five dollars a year. This was not the case with disposable towels, because I could spend six US dollars a month,” says Lushoka. A set of three Maisha Pad towels costs US$2.5 per year. The NGO has also set up a service that allows women to sell the pads within their community and thus promote entrepreneurship. “We offer women and female pharmacists the opportunity to sell our products. For each sale, they can earn 2 cents on the dollar in commission,” explains Namwezi.
Divine Ntakobajira, 22, is a seamstress specialising in the design of sanitary towels. She has been working at Uwezo Afrika Initiative for several months. She was unable to complete her studies due to lack of funds. But thanks to her work, Divine is now able to support her parents by assisting some of her younger siblings.
“Thanks to this work, I can now take care of myself. I don’t need a man to provide me with clothes and take care of my needs,” explains this self-taught woman who now walks with her head held high.
“I decided to work to ease the burden on my parents. A woman who does not work has many problems in life,” she says. She now dreams of setting up her own sewing workshop where she can introduce women like her to sewing.
Before getting to that stage, Divine is beginning with some small income-generating activities with the savings she manages to make. “I manage to save US$30 a month. With this money, I have started marketing women’s shoes. I buy shoes that I distribute on credit to the women in the neighbourhood. After two weeks, they pay me. This allows me to diversify my sources of income,” she explains.
Despite its many successes, Uwezo Afrika Initiative faces several challenges. “All the raw materials we use are imported. This makes our production costs very high. Also, we operate in a community where a large part of the population lives below the poverty line. This means that there are many people who would like to have our products for free. This is something we cannot do at the moment because we finance our production with very limited means,” explains Namwezi.
The biggest challenge, however, remains the taboo of menstrual hygiene. “In Africa, menstruation is a taboo subject that is not discussed in public. When we try to raise awareness, people think we are depraved, but a woman needs access to quality menstrual hygiene services to be able to thrive,” says Namwezi. Through social media campaigns and grassroots sensitisation, Uwezo Afrika Initiative is breaking down the myths around menstruation and empowering women to take part in the development of their communities.

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