You absolutely, without exception, need to read this. Gender irrelevant.
At TEDxUW, sitting to my right, was a young gentleman who, as I’d learned earlier in the conference, is REALLY into cars. Mechanical engineer, beyond ambitious, a lovely neighbour, though a little on the fidgety side (you know who you are). He fidgeted through every Talk, except Sabrina’s.
Sabrina didn’t talk about memory or motivation or spirituality. She instead took us to Kenya with her stories, and spoke about a woman’s period. About how this thing that we’re taught since middle school is normal and natural is the reason women in some cultures are shunned. Exiled, for a week every month, and kept away from their education. Their society. So you can imagine what it was like, not just for me listening to her talk about this universal and very relatable thing, but for me to observe my gentleman neighbour sit completely still during Sabrina’s talk. He was leaning in eagerly – and with a perfect hint of curious discomfort – to hear more.
Leaning in! That was amazing. Sabrina not only made menstruation an Everybody issue, she’s committed herself to solving it. A few years ago she co-founded an NGO called Femme International which works in Africa to empower women by providing education and menstrual management supplies. But Femme doesn’t only work with women – you’ll read about their young mens’ program too! This 100 Cups of Coffee post is, to date, one of my favourite.
If you want to know how I got this empowered and empowering woman to sit down with me, well, here’s the story: after her Talk someone else came up to speak and she couldn’t get to her usual reserved seat up front until they finished, to avoid getting in the way of everyone’s view. So, she sat down a few seats away from me. And what does Dana do? She pulls out her notebook (yes I took one), scribbles Sabrina an introductory note, and asks her [other] neighbour to pass it on. It’s becoming 100 Cups of Coffee style to get people on board in wacky ways. We had to meet over Skype, as you do when your interviewee is in Tanzania, so Sabrina was kind enough to send some photos of her day-to-day for us to see.
P.S. Femme International has partnerships with Ruby Cup (ladies, you know what this is) in a buy-one-give-one campaign. Like what Toms does but with menstrual cups. And also, a partnership with the Ready to Groove app, which is a period tracker.
DI: Tell us about yourself!
SR: I am Canadian, and I grew up in a small town. I decided to study International Development at Queen’s because I was curious about the world and what was going on. I was really intrigued by the possibility of a career that would let me travel and interact with more than just the town where I was from. So, during my studies, I really just focused a lot on women’s issues and became passionate about women because I believe that women and girls are the future. I don’t think international development programming will ever work if it doesn’t start focusing on women.
In my last year I spent four months doing an internship in rural Kenya. It was my first real experience in the field on a practical level – I was doing a micro-finance project in a tiny village 2 hours north of Nairobi and it really gave me a lot of insight into realities of the whole sector in international development. Then fast-forward a few years later, I’d done a few internships in East Africa, Uganda, working with an educational backpacking company, and I went back to Humber to get more of a practical education in terms of project management. It was at Humber when the idea for Femme International was born. Since then it has been all Femme, all the time.
DI: When did you realize you were interested in women’s issues?
SR: In high school I was really involved in different activities. I was volunteering at an NGO in my town that would build water and sanitation projects, and they would always say these projects are so much more successful when women’s groups get involved and women are able to take that responsibility. And so I sort of went into the international development field with the mindset that you need to include the women. And I was definitely influenced by the Because I Am A Girl campaign – that was a powerful video where they really break it down and shoe exactly how effective a girl’s education can be. I can’t pinpoint a specific moment but the more I got involved in the sector the more I realized women and girls are involved in the process.
DI: How does a person start an NGO?
SR: It takes a lot of time, and a lot of googling questions like how do you start an NGO? This wasn’t something I’d ever planned to do. We had a lot of luck and great people helping us, and definitely teachers from Humber people were supportive, because it wasn’t something they had really considered. I think it takes a lot of stupidity and also courage. If you’re passionate about something then just run with it. And that’s what we did and didn’t look back. Definitely things went wrong a thousand times, and we were discouraged a thousand times. Neither of us co-founders came from wealthy backgrounds, so it took a lot of really hard work and working at restaurants and different odd jobs to support ourselves during thos process. But I don’t think I would have done it any other way because it was definitely a labour of love. I think when you combine hard work, a great cause, great people and some lock you get something really cool.
DI: Why is menstruation so important?
SR: Menstruation is such a unique issue from the development standpoint because it’s something that is a shared experience with women everywhere. Every woman gets a period and every girl will feel a bit confused, no matter where she’s coming from, and every woman that I talk to basically has a different version of the same story. It’s something everyone can relate to, whether you’re from Canada or Europe or Tanzania or India.
DI: How does Femme International come in?
SR: Femme takes a really education-based approach. We think that is the way to create the most sustainable and lasting change. We’ve developed the feminine health management workshop which teaches girls about their bodies. We talk about the reproductive system, and the menstrual cycle, and menstrual management, and then we also talk about a bunch of other questions that come up surrounding UTIs, PMS, test infections, safe sex. The girls will have questions about sexual assault and rape and “my boyfriend wants to have sex but I don’t want to, am I allowed to say no?” All these questions show that there is no health education, and the gender roles they’re taught aren’t necessarily safe for them. And they the girls ask questions like “my boobs hurt, is that normal?” or “I haven’t gotten my period yet and I’m fifteen, is that normal?” The best part about workshops is the safe space that is created where girls are able to ask questions and get accurate answers, free of myths and stigmas.
We also distribute what are called Femme Kits. Those are designed to have everything a girl needs for her period, including a menstrual cup or reusable pads, which remove the financial burden of menstruation. One major barrier to girls aside from stigma and lack of education is that girls don’t have the money to buy pads, and when they have to ask their fathers or uncles for money they will often just not. And in that case they will use something else or nothing at all and stay home. So providing girls with alternative methods to stay safe and clean means they don’t have to take on odd jobs, which a lot of girls do to make money to manage their cycle. We find that combination of education and distribution can really be effective in dealing with menstruation and fighting stigma and creating a true narrative around the issue, which helps girls feel more confident.
DI: What is something you’re most proud of?
SR: A few things. Right now we employ 6 full-time staff. For me that is a huge source of pride because it demonstrates how much the organization has grown, to the point where we are able to provide jobs for 6 people. To me this is crazy and amazing. And also, it’s great whenever I hear stories from our beneficiaries – that always reminds me of why I’m really doing this in the first place. I like to keep those on hand for when I’m having a tough day, to look at what this girl said and what we do for her. Really seeing that impact is constantly inspiring.
DI: Do you work with boys at all? How do you get them on board?
SR: It’s so much easier than we thought it would be, because they are so curious. They don’t know about menstruation, they just sort of know what happens. And a lot of times that leads to the weird teasing that they do because they don’t understand and they’re a little bit scared of it. But then they’re also really curious – as boys are about anything that happens to the body. And in secondary school where they get to the age when they’re thinking more and more about “hmm, I’m going to have a girlfriend one day”, and they’re so curious. So it’s not really that hard. Our boys program covers a lot of specific issues that pertain to boys – their own reproductive health and hygiene – but then we also talk about the menstrual cycle and explain to them that it is completely normal and not something women can control. And they’re like “oh, yeah, okay.”
DI: What does success mean to you?
SR: From Femme’s perspective, to see success would be to see girls succeeding in school and feeling confident and free to achieve things. More broadly, feeling fulfilled in my work. And that’s a different thing for everyone, but finding something where I feel excited to go to work and even when I’m having a difficult day to be able to remember why I’m doing something in the first place. For me starting and running this organization is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but every time I’m having a terrible day I’m somehow reminded of why I’m doing it. I’ll get an email from somebody or this other little thing will happen that reminds me why I’m passionate about the work Femme does. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to turn something I’m passionate about into a career. It’s not a lucrative career, and I’m not doing it for the money because there really is none, but it’s amazing that this idea we had three years ago has impacted over 1000 girls. Overwhelming, but pretty cool.
Well, there y’all go. Another [virtual] cup of coffee down, a ton more to go. I hope you learned something. And that you’re perhaps more grateful for what you have. And to Sabrina, keep doing what you’re doing. You’re seriously making a huge difference. Thank you.
All the best,