I first visited Chole Island in the mid 1990s. It is a tiny island off the coast of Tanzania and part of the Mafia Archipelago. There is one village on the island and the people living there face many challenges as the island is remote and there is no mains electricity.
I was lucky enough to go back to the island twice in 2018 – the second time to hold a yoga retreat there. On my first visit, I had various discussions with Anne de Villiers who runs an ecotourism business there, some school teachers and women from the village. One of the issues that came up was of girls having to miss school due to period poverty. Throwaway sanitary pads are very expensive to buy, they are full of plastic and their disposal is complicated as they have to be buried in secret as there are taboos around menstrual blood. The traditional way is to use rolled up cloth but people told me this is “not very safe” as it often leaks and girls opt to miss school rather than risk the embarrassment of blood leaking through their clothes.
Just recently the BBC reported a tragic story from Kenya where a schoolgirl hanged herself after being period shamed by a teacher: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-49661658
When I visited the island to hold a yoga retreat last November, the participants were all keen to give something back to the islanders. I did some research and came across Earthwise, a company who make reusable pads and who already do charity work in Kenya. When I spoke to them and explained about the particular situation on Chole Island they said that the pads would work well there as the best thing to do with used pads is to soak them in salty water before washing them in cold water. Earthwise supply the pads in packs which contain different sizes and they will give one pack for every one bought and so I suggested we take packs of Earthwise pads for schoolgirls to try as well as some Mooncups for the married women. When I was there in November 2018, I had a meeting with some women from the village to explain the options and they were happy to organize a trial to see how well the different items worked.
There are currently 50 girls in the Chole Mjini scholarship programme who are at secondary school. Women agreed that disposable pads are very expensive and some families can’t afford to buy them every month. Then girls then have to use the traditional method of a folded piece of cloth, which everyone agreed is not very secure.
After trying the pads and Mooncups for several months, this is a translation of the feedback report that I was sent by Mwanjuma Abdallah:
“Report of the discussion between the students and myself regarding the assistance with modern pads and the Mooncup which will help us be more private during the time of our periods.
We started the discussion with a few of the students to explain how to use these pads during the time of their periods. They liked them and they were vey happy. They thanked you for the idea of support and they said it would help them very much especially because of the cost. They have to go to their parents to get money to buy pads and it is about 2,000 shillings for one packet which is a lot for us (sometimes one packet can be 4,500 shillings).
We also tried to include some of the teachers in this discussion and we showed them both the pads and the Mooncups. They also said thank you very much for the idea of reusable items. We went to the primary school and they said it was a really good idea as it would help the students who end up making a mess of their clothes and it is then embarrassing for everybody. It would be very nice for girls not to get embarrassed and to be able to participate in all of their studies and not have to go home to change their clothes.
We also spoke to some of the parents and students from secondary school and showed them the pads and the Mooncups and we explained how to use them. The general consensus was that the Mooncup isn’t very good for the students but that the pads were brilliant and it would help them very much to reduce the cost of buying pads again and again during periods.
I myself have tried the pads and I was really happy with them and I also tried the Mooncup. I really like the Mooncup because there is no need to wash everything and every few hours you just change the Mooncup and put it back in again and nobody would know. So it is a very private thing that I can use on the days of my period.
Girls used to use cloth but in a short time it is full of blood and many times the blood leaks out onto your clothes and makes a mess, especially if you have heavy periods. Then it’s very hard to wash the cloths and carry them around so that often we would just come home rather than actually dealing with it.
We are very grateful that you have seen that we have this problem and that you are getting involved to make our lives easier. Lastly we would like to say thank you for thinking to help us, especially girls, in this very important matter. It would really make a big difference in helping us stay with our studies.
Thank you and may God bless you and give you a long life.
Prepared by Mwanjuma Abdallah.”
On Chole Island there is typically one wage earner in a family earning between 200,000-300,000 Tz shillings per month (£70-£106).
It’s likely that this amount would be supporting a family of eight. Having to buy several packs of disposable pads on a monthly basis is often just not affordable.
Initially I am hoping to raise enough funds to buy a pack of Earthwise pads for each schoolgirl of menstruating age on the island. £20.00 will provide one pack of pads of mixed sizes and Earthwise will then donate a second pack so that each girl should have enough pads to help them be able to comfortably attend school throughout each month. Longer term, I would like to source materials so that reusable pads could actually be produced on Chole Island at a price that is affordable for people.
If you would like to help then all donations will be gratefully received.
Thanks for your support,
Bethan and the girls of Chole Island