A small band of seamstresses works far, far away from the glare of any spotlight.
Each month, they gather in the back of a Pendleton sewing supply store called Thimbles Fabric-N-More. The product they create isn’t glamorous, adorable or patriotic such as quilts for veterans or fuzzy, bunny-covered baby blankets for preemies.
Instead, they create reusable sanitary pads. Yes, you read that correctly. Sanitary pads.
It’s not sexy or sweet, but so important, say the members of this little sewing cadre.
The end users are 500 million or so girls around the world who miss school for one week out of each month during their monthly cycles because they lack hygiene supplies. The seamstresses produce kits containing washable flannel sanitary pads, shields, panties, soap and Ziplocs for washing things in, all packaged together in a colorful drawstring bag. A smaller version is called a POD, or portable object of dignity.
One in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa miss school during their menstrual period because they lack pads. A study in Ethiopia reported that 56 percent of girls missed school specifically because they don’t have them. Some girls and women use whatever they can find for absorption, from wood chips or banana leaves to corn husks, feathers or animal dung.
Pendleton resident Beth Harrison signed up as a seamstress a year and a half ago with an organization called Days for Girls. Altrusa International, of which Harrison is a member, sponsors the sewing project and many of the seamstresses, though not all, are members of the local club.
The women and hundreds of other sewers all over the world create portable and reusable kits for girls who wouldn’t be able to attend school without them. Days for Girls provides patterns and instructions about what materials work best.
Recently, Harrison and several other women sat at sewing machines or ironed or cut fabric inside Thimbles. A low hum emanated from the machines.
“The whole purpose is to get girls to school,” Harrison said. “All over the world, there are girls who can’t go to school one week out of the month.”
She said her resolve grew watching some of the videos on the DFG website. In one, a young girl from rural Nepal talks about being ordered by her mother to stay in a cowshed for seven days.
“She told me menstruation was impure and bad,” the girl said (through an interpreter). “When I was staying in the cow shed, I was very scared.”
The pre-teen feared deadly snakes or that “men would come in.”
In other places, girls are banished to forests or caves.
Founder and CEO Celeste Mergens started Days for Girls after spending time in Kenya at an orphanage and learning that the girls stayed in their rooms during menstruation.
The nonprofit gained a boost when Meghan Markle wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on the subject after visiting India.
“One hundred and thirteen million adolescent girls between the ages of 12-14 in India alone are at risk of dropping out of school because of the stigma surrounding menstrual health,” wrote the Duchess of Sussex. “During my time in the field, many girls shared that they feel embarrassed to go to school during their periods, ill equipped with rags instead of pads, unable to participate in sports, and without bathrooms available to care for themselves, they often opt to drop out of school entirely.”
The Pendleton sewers know this topic is one that makes some squeamish, but they soldier on.
“This is restoring dignity and helping girls value themselves as individuals,” Harrison said. “There is so much stigma in some of the cultures.”
Because the cloth is dark and colorful, the kit appears like something other than what it is.
“They look like colorful handkerchiefs,” Harrison said. “The girls can hang them up to dry and nobody’s the wiser. We try to make each one beautiful, bright and happy.”
The group can always use more fabric, especially 100 percent cotton flannel for the pads and cotton material for the shields and drawstring bags. The fabric should be bright with dark colors and designs. To be culturally sensitive, avoid prints with people, animals, faces, bugs (anything with eyes), guns, camouflage and knives. Florals and geometrics are best.
“We go through fabric like crazy,” said Theresa Degan, busy at the ironing board.
The women get together to work, but some also sew at home. Realtor Vicki Scharn, sitting at one of the sewing machines, is one of them. “In the winter, when I can’t do things outside, I’ll spend four or five hours a weekend,” Scharn said. “I like to sew.”
The girls they are helping are always on their minds.
“It’s hard to feel value as an individual if you’re shunned one week of the month,” Harrison said. “This gives them equal footing at school.”
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Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.