Sewing, Menstrual Cycles, and Relationships
By Laura Trabadello
What would you say is one of the greatest challenges that a young girl faces in an underdeveloped country? Aside from sickness, responsibilities in the home, and early marriage, what would hold her back from going to school?
Read on for a look into a new project at NVOC, and the ways we are addressing the need for better quality feminine hygiene products in this country.
In Nigerien culture, discussing a woman’s period is shameful. It is seldom discussed even in the home with female relatives, forcing young girls to navigate this transitional phase on their own. Religiously speaking, at least in this Islamic context, a woman’s period makes her unclean. This means that she is unable to pray or enter a mosque during this time of the month. In a practical sense, a woman’s period can hinder her from going about her regular life because of the physical ramifications— she may not be able to leave the home for this week due to limited sustainable resources for dealing with her period. At NVOC, we are trying to address these cultural, religious, and practical reasons—desiring to reverse the pause that takes place in the lives of Nigerien women for a week in every month.
During our health lessons this year, we have taken the time to teach on the menstrual cycle, empowering the students with knowledge about their bodies. We are frank in our lessons on this subject, which is purposefully meant to be counter-cultural, and it reinforces the idea that NVOC is a safe place—where judgment and shame do not lead our conversations and relationships. Many of the girls have shared that the first time they learned about their period was at NVOC, and it has helped them to be aware of this normal part of life as a woman. They are thankful to be able to learn about it. We also continue to pray in class with the girls, regardless of the time of the month. We thank God for what he has given us and ask for his continued provision and model to the girls that they can access God at all times, whether or not they have their period!
While these cultural and religious perspectives make addressing menstruation more challenging, it is important to begin here—demonstrating that NVOC is not only a centre for educating women, but also for empowering and encouraging them.
But what about the practical ramifications? What sustainable and community-endorsed options could help remove the shame that hinders girls from going to school during their periods?
Four years ago, sanitary pad kits from an organization called Days for Girls were given as a gift to the first cycle of NVOC girls, and the idea of creating a sustainable in-country equivalent sparked in Chantelle M’s mind (co-director of NVOC). After all, sewing is one of the vocational skills offered here.
As Chantelle dreamed of the possibility, she discovered that most of the materials could be found in-country or a good equivalent, and the project itself seemed attractive to the national NVOC staff as a small microenterprise venture. The idea took off and brought us to about a month ago, when a team of ladies from Alberta came to work on sewing these kits with the NVOC students.
Tamara, Jacky and Donna brought different strengths and skills with them, yet they were unified in their heart for the girls: they desired that these young ladies be empowered by this project—and their efforts showed this desire. From teaching the sewing steps, to interacting across language barriers, to learning about the culture of Niger, this team was all in. As NVOC teachers, we translated for the Alberta team and helped to guide the project. It was fun to see the students catching the vision and engaging in each step. On the first few days of the project, they could not be dragged away from their sewing machines—even for lunch!
Both the current cycle of girls and the graduates from last cycle were present for the two-week project blitz. The graduates were given the more intricate tasks, such as cutting, assembling, and sewing the sanitary pad shields, while the younger, more novice sewers were taught these intricate steps gradually. While the novice sewers took more time to learn the steps, they were so committed to learning and executing their tasks well. An added challenge (and added joy) were the graduates’ young children, who come to NVOC while their mamas work. Often times, the women on the Alberta team, or us NVOC staff, would take a child in our arms to let their mom’s work, which made for some very fun moments in the week.
Through it all, the NVOC students and graduates strived for excellence in their workmanship, which really showed after seeing what they had accomplished at the end of our two weeks! As a team, the girls sewed 650 liners, about 300 shields, and over 100 bags. Our goal was to make enough for 100 kits, and we will be putting them together with the girls over the next few weeks. We will also begin to teach how they can be introducing these sustainable hygiene kits into their communities, using an illustrated and culturally relevant booklet that was created for this project (and that will be translated into Hausa, Zarma, and French).
The hard work was accomplished, yet that was not the only important step made forward over the two weeks. As is the priority in Nigerien culture, and something we strive for at NVOC, relationships grew. A few of the graduates had previously met some of the team from Alberta, so their reunion was sweet and their friendships grew throughout their stay. Each woman on the team seemed to make a special connection with at least one or two of the girls, and they shared laughter and sewing tips with one another. The NVOC students also had fun teaching the women how to use their hand crank sewing machines; they even showed us interns how to sew on them! We appreciated their patience and senses of humor as they taught us. At the end of the two weeks, the students, graduates, and Nigerien NVOC staff expressed how much they enjoyed working as a big group. The national teachers felt it advanced relationships and helped to build trust with the NVOC expatriate staff. It was encouraging to hear this and sense this growth in friendship. Working hard together every day for two weeks brought about more than we could have hoped for.
On the last day of those two weeks, we celebrated these friendships and the amazing work that was done with cake and a few “thank you” speeches and little gifts. It was a fun way to wrap up the short-term team’s stay. Now as we approach our last two months of the school year, the goal is to finish up the illustrated booklets and begin to empower the girls to take these kits into their communities. The national NVOC staff and the graduates are optimistic about introducing a new product into their communities that could help to make a difference in the everyday lives of women. We are praying for wisdom in these next steps and look forward to seeing what fruit may come of this women’s project.