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Freweini’s Story

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

Freweini Mebrahtu, founder, Mariam Seba Sanitary Products Factory
Freweini Mebrahtu, founder, Mariam Seba Sanitary Products Factory

I was born and raised in a small town in rural Ethiopia.

I come from a family of 8 – 3 boys and 5 girls. I am the 7th child, the youngest daughter. My parents never went to school but my dad learned how to read and write through church. My father was hard-working and he was only 12 years old when he moved to start a life on his own in a city near his village. He worked in various jobs and started a family with my mother when he was 24 years old. Later he became the owner of a small motel and was respected in his community and made a very good life for us.

My dad believed in education and made sure that all his children went to school. He was a very proud dad and we all had admired and respected him.

As an adolescent girl, I will never forget the experience having my first period. I was shocked and confused; my mother and my 4 sisters had not told me anything about periods. What girls overhear from grown-ups was that girls have their periods because they are being bad and therefore are ready to be married.

With all the myths and misinformation, I wanted to hide so that no one would know what was happening. I was confused, depressed, and isolated until my friends and I realized we were all experiencing the same thing. We would use pieces of old clothing as pads and make sure to bring large scarves to cover ourselves if we stained our clothes by accident. The other challenges were irregular periods, cramps, and all the questions that I wanted someone to answer but never dared to ask.

Then I had an opportunity to come to the U.S. for school and remembered my first visit to the drug store with its overwhelming choice of sanitary pads. From that moment on, month after month, I wondered about the girls back home. Were things changing for them too?

I got my chemical engineering degree from P&V University in 1992. I promised my Father that I would return home after my education, so I started to visit Ethiopia once it was safe (after the communist (Dergue) regime fell). During my visits, I wanted to know if anything had changed for adolescent girls and women dealing with periods since I left the country. I started by questioning the women in the village and their experience with periods. The stories I heard were shocking – digging a hole and squatting over it for three to five days, or wrapping themselves with strips of cloth. I also noticed that they were uncomfortable talking about it – this is still a taboo subject.

I needed to figure out a solution. I wanted to develop a product that was affordable, reliable, and environmentally friendly. In 2005, I developed a reusable sanitary pads and piloted the product in Kelkel Debri on the edge of Mekelle with a lot of success. In 2006, I got a patent from the science and technology ministry of Ethiopia.

In 2009, I received a loan from the development bank of Ethiopia for 150,000 USD and built a factory on 1500 sq. meters of land. The factory currently employs 42 local women and produces 600,000 sanitary pads and 300,000 underwear per year.

It is my hope that this product will bring dignity to many more girls in Ethiopia.


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