Sky's Summer in Rwanda

After living in four different countries, attending six schools and being exposed to dozens of cultures, I honestly thought I had heard it all. That is why I still find it so very hard to believe that I could stumble upon an issue so pressing as women’s lack of access to menstrual products. Even more to my astonishment, a single article has lead to (amongst many other things) an unforgettable, life-changing time in Rwanda working with SHE. 

            I lived for a month this summer in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Although I had organized, scheduled and prepared for months, embarking on my trip did feel like stepping into the unknown. I was so keen but as the days grew nearer my nerves did kick in. Many would presume that I was scared from the thought of being alone in a new country, but instead I was preoccupied with whether anyone would take a 16-year-old blond, peppy girl seriously. Much to my content, I have never been treated with more respect or maturity, then when I worked along side the amazing people I met in Rwanda. 

On the road from capital city Kigali to the rural area in Kayonza
I spent most days in Kigali, but I had the opportunity to travel the countryside on multiple occasions. Officially, I completed a checklist of items for SHE, including shooting and editing films. I still managed to spend most of my time hidden behind my camera lens, trying to capture as many things as possible (more to come!). When I did venture away from it, I met incredible people who told me heart-breaking, courageous or inspiring stories. Travelling with the SHE team, we ran focus groups where I had the luck of listening to girls tell me about their experiences with their periods. Most of the time, they were my age, which truly allowed me to bond with them. Although we live thousands of miles apart, I found we had as much in common as we did different. 

Just some of the natural beauty that can be found all over in Rwanda
 I recorded my experiences through videos, photos, and journal entries. Right now I am collecting and organizing everything to share with you…so stay tuned! 

School's in Session at SHE

 The holidays are over! Students are back in school, which is great news for me! As Junior Marketing Officer, Rwanda, I am responsible for conducting market research so the SHE team can develop a marketing and communications plan that speaks to our target consumers during our pilot: rural school girls. Therefore, I was delighted to see students with their bookbags, because I was headed to the same place! I went to Kayonza recently to interview school headmasters.

We first visited with the headmasters in order to introduce SHE as a potential partner and supplier of our SHE pads to them. I was there not only to gain a broad understanding about the school and girls’ existing needs for menstrual pads and menstrual hygiene education, but also to arrange focus group discussions with the girls that will take place later on this month. During my visits, I also had the opportunity to take a look at the school’s existing sanitation facilities including the latrines, girls’ rooms, water tanks,etc.

The girls' room at Gs Gishanda, where girls can access pads while at school.
Entrance to the girls' latrine at Gs Gishanda.

My most memorable moments of my school visits were talking directly to the girls about how they manage their menstrual hygiene needs while at school. “Our school has a home-like atmosphere, so you can approach your friend and provide a pad , and tell her how to put it on when she doesn’t know how to, or even check on her during break when she is not feeling well,”  explained Esperance, the Head Girl at Gs Cyinzovu.

Head Girl, Esperance, at GS Cyinzovu
The school administration also acknowledges that lack of menstrual pads does result in absenteeism for some girls. “Pads have an impact on girls’ attendance, therefore, we will set apart a certain amount [of the school budget] for sanitary pads for girls even if the government stops providing funding for pads, because we know girls needs them to pursue their studies,” shared Juliet, the school secretary at Gs Gishanda.

In the future, we are expecting to meet mothers to get their opinions, the cultural context of menstruation, as well as surrounding taboos. I look forward to meet them, and I hope we will learn a lot from them.

- Gerardine, Junior Marketing Officer, Rwanda

Amelia's summer at SHE

We introduced Amelia earlier this summer as one of our intrepid Youth Interns. Amelia spent time in both Kenya and US working on behalf of SHE and will continue to be involved with SHE as one of the co-producers of an upcoming video series SHE Talks!You want to stay tuned for this!

The issue of women and girls missing work and school because of menstruation is a human right’s issue that I believe SHE approaches in a sensible and pragmatic way.  During July, I lived in Nairobi, Kenya working in the Kibera slums.  While I was there I spent time talking to girls and women about the issues caused by menstruation that they faced regularly.   
When I got back to the United States, I learned more about SHE’s mission and its approach to expanding the access of sanitary pads for women around the world.  I worked in the SHE offices in New York to help organize their database.

I am now collecting stories and videos to start SHE talks, an advocacy initiative for women and girls to tell personal stories or community legends that surround the discussion of menstruation.

-Amelia, High School Senior and SHE's Youth Intern

A gendered look at socially responsible design - guest post from Natalie Balthrop

At SHE, the design and social enterprise world collide on a daily basis when you are working to create transformative change in underserved communities across the world. Natalie Balthrop, a design historian, recently completed her masters' thesis that explored how socially responsible design has addressed women's needs in both history and practice. SHE's business model and our product, the SHE LaunchPad, was one of several projects that were examined. Natalie writes how SHE's video sparked her curiosity to study this issue further:

Three years ago, when I began my graduate studies in the history of decorative arts and design, I planned to study something grand like 20th-century furniture or graphic design history. I certainly never imagined I would write a thesis on sanitary pads. In 2010, I started my second year of graduate school. My love affair with design for social good was blossoming and planting roots in my psyche. To fuel this interest, I attended the Cooper-Hewitt’s Why Design Now? conference and on that October day, the direction of my studies changed. Gone were my plans to investigate the uncredited female designers of decades past. At this conference, I decided to dedicate the next 20 months of my life to thinking about sanitary pads and design systems for social good.

Elizabeth Scharpf spoke on a panel and showed SHE’s campaign video. I watched in bewilderment - how could women not have access to affordable sanitary pads? I’m a feminist; I read the New Yorker, how could I not know about this issue? In today’s era of civilian uprisings, revolutions, and war, atrocities committed against women appear in our newspapers and on the news. But what about the hidden, everyday hardships that women face? Specifically, what about insufficient access to sanitary pads? As a student of design history, we are taught that designers are problem solvers. But why is this problem unknown? Is it because it affects women? Because it’s taboo? These questions gave birth to my thesis.

While it’s impossible to turn 118 pages into a 500 word blog post, in summary, my thesis investigates how women, economics, and development interact globally and explores the emergence of design solutions at the intersection of these fields. By tracing the history of socially responsible design, my research uncovers how the field addresses women’s needs and thus adds a feminist perspective. I studied early social design thinkers and searched for moments when women’s needs were mentioned - if at all. When women’s needs entered the discourse, I looked at which needs were prioritized and how this reflected patriarchal structures.

So in many ways, SHE allowed me to think critically about socially responsible design. It enabled me to then research other projects that typically improve women’s lives, such as water carrying devices, stoves, craft-based enterprises, and to question how these projects are still rooted within a male-dominated system. Such projects provide greater opportunities to women or meet basic human needs, but are developed within a framework that maintains the status quo. Introducing other projects for comparison allowed me to see SHE as a unique, intricate design that empowers women towards sustainable livelihoods in a way that also challenges deeply-rooted gender inequalities.

SHE attracted my attention initially because of the issues surrounding sanitary pad access. But in fact, SHE’s system design also allowed me to trace a critical moment in socially responsible design history when practice expanded from objects to projects. This system, which focuses on education, economic sustainability, and the use of locally-sourced materials, marks an important shift in this historical discourse.

One of the most exciting parts of writing my thesis was speaking with Elizabeth about SHE’s history and its plan for the future. I hope to continue this work and to keep exploring these delicate and complex issues around feminism and socially responsible design. Thank you, SHE!