SHE: Breaking Barriers on Menstruation

Elizabeth Scharpf is on a roll.  A 2008 Echoing Green Fellow, she created Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), a nonprofit organization that is shaking up the taboos around menstruation and sanitary pads. Without access to affordable sanitary pads when they menstruate, millions of girls and women in developing countries miss up to 50 days of school/work per year, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income and productivity. SHE has developed an eco-friendly sanitary pad, using banana fibers that can be locally sourced and manufactured, creating an income stream for women and providing a much-needed, basic health product.

This past month, SHE was awarded the Curry Stone Design prize, which came with $100,000, no strings attached. When a sanitary pad is lauded as a design innovation, you have to sit up and pay attention. Chosen amongst two incredibly different projects, a sustainable public housing development in Chile, and a repurposed bicycle for small farmers in Guatemala, SHE is innovating on the “traditional” in every possible way.

With little or no access to an affordable sanitary product, many women end up using rags, bark, and even mud, resulting in a multitude of health problems. According to Curry Stone, SHE has a multi-faceted “quilt-like” approach to help remove the barriers circling the taboo of menstruation. Using advocacy and education, as well as the promotion of a local business model based on the sustainably designed pad, SHE is considering design both when it comes to a physical product and as a thematic to propose a holistic solution to an ancient issue. The she28 campaign pushes us to think about menstruation as an economic issue, not just a women’s issue. The Curry Stone Prize puts them over the halfway mark of the $1 million that SHE needs to complete a factory in Rwanda to manufacture the pads on a larger scale.

Following the prize, Nick Kristof featured Elizabeth and SHE in his article, “D.I.Y Foreign Aid Revolution” for The New York Times Magazine. Referring to Elizabeth as a “combustible mix of indignation and vision,” he shares her journey from a World Bank intern unexpectedly encountering the root cause of employee absenteeism in Mozambique, to boiling leaves and blending cassava and potato to find the right mix of materials to make an absorbent pad. Along this journey, Kristof says, Elizabeth joined a revolution of young people who are unwilling to wait around for government and international agencies to take action, instead taking up this idea of “Do-It-Yourself Foreign Aid.” Mentioning movement leaders Kyle Zimmer of First Book and Ela Bhatt of SEWA in India, he is highlighting the notion that everyone is capable of making a positive social impact. We couldn’t agree more.

There were, of course, some counter arguments to Kristof’s DIY approach.  In Foreign Policy Magazine, Dave Algoso, a graduate student in international development at NYU, caused quite a stir by stating “Nick Kristof is wrong. Amateurs are not the future of foreign aid.” He is skeptical of Kristof’s “warm and fuzzy” portrayal of foreigners entering a community and designing solutions that make “development seem simple.” Algoso notes, quite correctly, that development is often political and rife with complications and localization issues, but his implication that Kristof is harkening this do-it-yourself attitude as similar to re-painting the living room, or fixing the faucet seems slightly off the mark.  In fact, Kristof admits, “…it’s complicated. Scharpf is engaged in a noble experiment—but entrepreneurs fail sometimes. And anybody wrestling with poverty at home or abroad learns that good intentions and hard work aren’t enough. Helping people is hard.”

For the most part, Echoing Green agrees with Algoso’s argument that development is not easy, nor should it be taken lightly, or with an imperialist attitude. However, we do think that he is making a parallel argument against Kristof, rather than taking his article for what it is meant to do—highlight three incredible women who assessed community needs, spent time in the field, sought out local partners, and took action. Kristof wants to “spread a culture of social engagement—and then figure out what people can do at a practical level.”

Tom Murphy, a regular blogger for the Huffington Post, probably says it best and most succinctly, “…doing something is not enough. Doing something can cause harm as easily as it can create good. So let’s encourage people to be bold and get involved, but not to just do what they want without consideration to the most important people in this entire process: the recipients.”

It’s important to do a thorough landscape review, to assess community needs and work towards understanding nuances in culture, language, and taboos, and to tread carefully when proposing solutions to community-based issues. It doesn’t take a professional to do that; you don’t need a graduate degree or a business background to make an impact. But, when people’s lives, livelihoods and health are at stake, the consequences are much higher, so while the do-it-yourself mantra incites passion, excitement, and a quick pace, there is certainly no harm in asking for a little help along the way.

We are incredibly proud of Elizabeth and her efforts to push through boundaries; we salute her boldness to turn “that time of the month” from a pain for some into an economic opportunity for all.