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‘The taboo can be changed:’ St. Louis non-profit helps Ethiopian women shed menstruation shame

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Helen and Lewis Wall and Freiweni Mebrahtu are working to ease the shame of menstruation among young women in Ethiopia.

Freiweni Mebrahtu was 13 when she first got her period. Growing up in Ethiopia, it was something her four older sisters never, ever brought up. When she went to school and asked her friends, they all vehemently denied that menstruation existed.

Her experience is not singular.

“Growing up it is something you never forget,” Mebrahtu told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “It is such a taboo subject, not even your mother can tell anything about it. Girls get shocked and they don’t know what to do—they just deal with it. It is not something you want to think about when you think about periods.”

Mebrahtu eventually grew into her changing body, but even as she came to the United States for college, her mind was still on the problem faced by young women in her country. In 2009, after her return to Ethiopia, Mebrahtu founded Mariam Seba Sanitary Products. She hoped to both diminish the taboos around menstruation and the help women who cannot afford to pay for feminine hygiene products.

That’s where Lewis and Helen Wall come in. Lewis, a professor of medical anthropology at Washington University, received a Fulbright scholarship to go to Ethiopia in 2014 and went there for 30 weeks. Within the first days of their arrival, they were connected with Mebrahtu.

“We were so impressed with her persistence and building the factory to make these reusable hygiene products,” said Helen. “We felt like we needed to make some sort of charity to help them distribute them. She was distributing these pads to poor girls in high schools and girls in prisons.”

So, the two founded the local non-profit Dignity Period to support Mariam. The group does three things:

  1. Fundraising to purchase hygiene products and distribute them.
  2. Education about what menstruation is and debunking of myths.
  3. Cultural research on attitudes and beliefs about menstruation.

“It has been a problem for female humans since the beginning of time,” Lewis said. “Many cultures have beliefs about menstruation and taboos on various practices but by the beginning of the 20th century, we had developed adequate hygiene products that allow women to manage their period without fear of embarrassment and staining. That’s just not true in many parts of the world.”

"Girls don't go to school when they have their periods because they are scared of staining their clothes."

Helen, who is the secretary and treasurer of the board of Dignity Period, laid out just why their work is important:

“Girls don’t go to school when they have their periods because they are scared of staining their clothes,” said Helen. “They are embarrassed and feel they’ll be laughed at. If you’re gone from school for 3-5 days a month, you eventually drop out. This is unconscionable considering a reasonable sanitary pad could keep them in school.”

Mebrahtu said she’s seen changes in communities and local culture around menstruation when the sanitary pads are introduced into the community.

“Because of education, this myth, this taboo can be changed once we give them the solution,” Mebrahtu said. “Once they know how to manage their periods, they can go on with their day-to-day life. Once you get rid of all the myth, it doesn’t even take time. They get it and they go on with their lives. It’s simple.”

"Educating girls and women is one of the most important investments any society can make."

Mebrahtu also puts her money where her mouth is. In addition to providing the reusable sanitary pads to women in Ethiopia, she also hires girls to work in her factory, gives them free training, a living wage, health care and a day-care center.

“We know from a lot of indicators that educating girls and women is one of the most important investments any society can make,” Lewis said. “It makes for better mothers, it improves childhood health, it improves economic productivity.”

Related Event

What: Dignity Period Spring Gala
When: Saturday, April 30 from 7:00 - 10:00 p.m.
Where: Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63110
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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