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Kelowna students sew for their sisters in Africa

Time:2020-02-23 13:12Underwear site information Click:

zahara groene anna spraggs bianca cole school Work

All girls at Dr. Knox Middle School in Kelowna have tampons and pads freely available in their washrooms. They don’t need to fear their periods.

The girls in Uganda’s schools don’t have these supplies. As a direct consequence, many drop out of school after reaching puberty.

Four Grade 9 girls at Knox — Anna Spraggs, Zahara Groenewald, Isabel Gramiak and Bianca Cole — are doing something about it.

“Frankly, it shocked me,” admitted Zahara. “I find a lot of people just don’t want to hear about such things.”

“There’s a stigma about menstruation,” said Bianca. “Even here.”

They’re working with ISEE Solutions Society, a registered Canadian charity and NGO, to provide menstrual hygiene kits for Ugandan girls — particularly for girls in northern Uganda, currently flooded with refugees from the civil strife in South Sudan.

Anna and Bianca, the first two girls to get involved, heard about Uganda in elementary school from one of their teachers, Erika van Oyen. She went to Uganda 12 years ago, as a volunteer, and discovered how a natural bodily function was harming women’s education.

“Many of these girls are too poor even to afford underpants, let alone disposable menstrual supplies,” she says. “A girl in her period will be ridiculed, teased if she soils her clothes, humiliated, so girls stay away. They fall behind in their classes, and eventually they drop out of school completely.”

Van Oyen’s solution was to form ISEE Solutions as a vehicle to provide those menstrual supplies. (The initials stand for Investing in Sustainability, Education and Empowerment.)

Over the last 10 years, she has distributed more than 7,500 menstrual kits: a drawstring bag containing eight reusable flannel pads, two shields, two pairs of underwear, two plastic bags for storing pads, soap and a washcloth.

With care, each kit can last up to three years.

Without the reusable pads, girls resort to rags, dried leaves and even cow dung.

Four of the pads and the drawstring bags are made in Uganda, by local women, using local materials. Four are sewn in Canada, along with the shields, because the special waterproof fabric to line them is not easily available in Uganda.

One Saturday morning every month, Anna, Isabel, Zahara and Bianca gather with about 30 older women (and a few men) to assemble the kits.

Currently, van Oyen takes up to 2,000 kits with her to Uganda during her summer vacation. During the winter, she is a teacher in Kelowna.

She leads workshops all over Uganda, teaching about hygiene and reproductive health. Her husband Corey provides similar education for boys.

“A large part of our work is education to prevent pregnancies,” says van Oyen. “So we teach women how to know when they are fertile.

“We promote abstinence first — providing menstrual supplies and sex education is NOT promoting sex. But if it’s going to happen, we want it to be safe sex, in a healthy relationship.

“That means learning what consent means. No means no. Girls need to know that they can say no, even in a male-dominant society.”

The four Dr. Knox girls are involved in the Global Citizen Events’ Sustainable Development Challenge and are seeking to win $5,000 to establish ISEE’s first permanent workshop to produce menstrual kits in Uganda itself. Ugandan women would be trained to produce the kits as a sustainable business venture, thus providing both employment and empowerment.

To promote their project, the four Dr. Knox girls have launched an Instagram media account, @education4her. They participate in ISEE’s Facebook, Twitter and blog pages: They’ve developed a presentation for the competition and have spoken to local media.

“Our job is to make people aware,” says Bianca.

“People don’t know enough to be informed,” says Isabel.

“They hear ‘Africa’ and they think lions,” Anna adds. “They don’t think about girls and education.”

Over the last 10 years, Erika van Oyen has distributed kits and information to about 7,500 girls.

That’s an infinitesimal fraction of Uganda’s 25 million female population, but it’s having an effect. Wherever van Oyen has led sessions, school absenteeism is down.

“The girls are using the kits,” van Oyen says. “Some share their kits with girls who were not able to come to our training sessions.”

She and her volunteers, who all pay their own way, do a lot of teaching to teachers as well. Uganda has rescinded a former ban on sexual education, but there is still no program to teach teachers how to teach students about their maturing bodies.

Van Oyen’s charitable foundation, ISEE Solutions (), is currently fundraising. For more information, write erika@iseesolutions.org.


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