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Listening to women – in Ethiopia and Nepal

Dignity Period was started by one woman who listened to the needs of other women in Ethiopia. She determined that menstrual hygiene was prohibiting girls from realizing their full potential. A similar process of listening to women led researchers working more than 3,000 miles away to connect with Dignity Period.

The Project

E.A. Quinn, Associate Professor of Biological Anthropology, and Geoff Childs, Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at Washington University, are working on a National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored research project in Nubri, in Gorkha District of Nepal. This project studies mothers and babies born in this region between certain dates, 86 children in total. A goal of the research is to learn more about how babies develop at high altitudes and how mothers manage this growth through feeding and other practices.

As part of this project, the researchers provide community education for women to keep themselves and their children healthy. Because E.A. and Geoff are staunch advocates of education being led by local people in local languages, these sessions are facilitated by Nepal SEEDS – an organization that has been running health and education projects in this region of Nepal for 20 years. After one community education session on breast feeding techniques led by a local nurse named Tsewang Sangmo, women approached E.A. and asked her for something that the trainers weren’t offering – menstrual hygiene supplies.

Like the northern regions of Ethiopia in which Dignity Period works, the villages in the Nubri region are a five-day walk from the nearest road and most supplies that cannot be made or grown locally arrive via mule train. This means that single-use and reusable menstrual hygiene products are expensive or non-existent. Women in this region use old cloth, straw, or whatever is available to manage their periods. Along with being unreliable, these products can cause terrible infections.

E.A. and Geoff are familiar with the work of Dignity Period in Ethiopia through fellow Anthropology Professor Lewis Wall. After listening to what women need in Nubri, they took this information back to St. Louis and arranged to purchase pad kits from Dignity Period for distribution in Nepal.

Getting pads to Nubri

Getting pads to Nubri was not an easy undertaking. Helen and Lewis Wall first had to carry the pads out of Ethiopia in suitcases – through customs in Ethiopia and the US – and deliver them to the offices of E.A. and Geoff at WashU. Then E.A. and Geoff had to carry the pads – 400 in total – to Nepal. From Kathmandu, the pads had to be lifted via helicopter to the villages.

Geoff notes one of the biggest upsides of this collaboration:

“Had Nepal SEEDS or Dignity Period been working to get pads to women in Nubri on their own, airlifting pads would have been prohibitively expensive. But because we were all working together with grant funding from the NSF, we could pool resources and make this service available to the women of Nubri.”

Once the pad kits were dropped off, they were distributed in two waves. The first wave delivered pads and education to women in three villages in November of 2016 and the second wave distributed to eight villages in May of 2017. The educational training was once again run by Nepal SEEDS and the research project.  Nurse Pasang Lhamo and local researchers Jangchuk Sangmo and Nyima Sangmo covered how to use and wash the pads, how to manage their periods, and the symptoms of bacterial infection, so the women could identify the common side effects of poor menstrual hygiene.

What’s next?

While evaluating the effectiveness of the pads was not part of the official research, E.A. and local team members asked women if the pads were helpful and they received a lot of positive feedback. One woman in particular described how much easier travel was with menstrual hygiene products, and how much more mobile she became after receiving her pad kit.

E.A. explains how the women’s actions provided the best testament to the value of the pads:

“Many women were so excited that they wanted to get more pads for their daughters who were going to school in Kathmandu. When these women learned that we were distributing more pads in May to other villages in the region, they walked several hours to attend the trainings. For women whose only currency is time, this was a huge investment and shows how much these pads are valued.”

When deciding what to do next, researchers again listened to women. This time the women asked for more health and hygiene training – this time for their husbands. The partnership is now working to develop a workshop for men.


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