Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Waterloo group’s menstruation kits help keep Kenyan girls in school

As posted on the Metroland website, September 3, 2014.
WATERLOO — In February, Brenda Porter was preparing to leave Kenya after a volunteer stint with the charitable organization Sleeping Children Around the World.

This had been her fourth trip with the organization but an unexpected encounter sent the Waterloo woman in a new direction.

“On my last night, I met these women from Australia,” she said. “They had these (menstruation) kits with them. I knew nothing about this.”

The women were volunteers with the U.S.-based charity Days for Girls, a worldwide organization that provides young women with kits containing eight washable pads with polyurethane shields, a plastic bag for washing soiled pads, underwear, soap and a pad holder with snaps, all packed in a drawstring bag.

The kits are simple and cost just $5 to produce but make a tremendous difference.

Porter said she had never thought about how women in Third World countries coped with menstrual flow, particularly those who could not afford sanitary napkins.

For many school-aged girls, the problem is so troublesome they simply stay indoors for the duration of their period, which affects their education.

“It’s a huge problem,” Porter said. “Girls are missing five days of school a month and it’s not being talked about.”

In 2009, the Forum of African Women Educationalists conducted a study in Uganda and reported that more than half the girls from 11and 13 drop out of school due to lack of sanitary pads, water for washing or separate bathroom facilities. They face teasing from boys when they leak through to their clothes.

The report also found that girls sometimes perform sexual favours to earn enough money to buy sanitary pads.

Girls will use leaves, mattress stuffing, newspaper, corn husks, rocks, anything they can find when on their period.

Returning to Canada, Porter immediately recruited friends to start making kits and together they joined Days for Girls as a team. The organization has nine chapters in Canada plus 11teams, a designation that could lead to a full-fledged chapter.

“I have 10 helpers and friends of friends,” said Porter, whose dining room table is piled high with fabric, some of it donated, some purchased. When she found a serger, used for trimming and sealing seams, advertised on Kijiji, the seller was happy to donate the machine for the cause.

“It’s an industrial serger from the 1920s,” Porter said. “He was trying to sell it for $500. It’s a little bit of a monstrosity, but I met a woman who could work that serger.”

That woman was 71-year-old Pat Jarvis, of St. Jacobs.

“It took me back to when I started sewing in England,” said Jarvis, who, after immigrating to Canada, worked at Forsyth Shirts in Kitchener and New Balance. She was very familiar with the old serger.

“I had my doubts it would run, but it did,” she said. The machine, with its heavy, cast-iron base, sits in her living room, a testament both to the past and a brighter future for Kenyan girls.

“When you think about it, it’s something we all have to deal with as women, but how when the resources are very slim,” she said. “It was a real eye-opener.”

Several nights a week, team members sit at craft tables cutting material and sewing, sewing, sewing. The first shipment of 25 kits was delivered to Kenya by a friend. The real adventure starts Sept. 14, when Porter’s 23-year-old daughter, Claire Lockhart, travels to Kenya for three months where she will work at a vocational school teaching girls to make their own kits with supplies from Canada. As well, Lockhart will distribute 50 kits made by the Waterloo Region volunteers.

Lockhart, a recent graduate of McMaster University, is starting the nursing program at Conestoga College in January and with a few months of inactivity looming this fall, she volunteered.

“I am really excited about this,” she said. “I’ve travelled but never in a Third World country.”

Lockhart discovered volunteerism though her mother who, in turn, had learned from her own mother.

Porter works as an efficiency expert in the insurance industry and uses her vacation time for overseas volunteer work.

“My mom did a lot of volunteering when I was growing up — it was always being modelled,” she said.