Ella Marinic, co-founder of Femme International (all photos courtesy of her)
I first met Ella Marinic in 2008, while we were both teaching in Japan. We became really close there, and then travelled together through Thailand and Laos for a few weeks in 2011. We’ve since kept in touch and seen each other whenever I visit Toronto.
I wanted her to write this post because I am so proud and so impressed with what she has done with her life in the past few years. As a co-founder of Femme International, she is helping young women in Kenya receive the menstrual care and hygiene that everyone deserves. Here’s what Ella had to say about the history and the work that they do. I hope you’ll read this and consider donating to their important and inspiring organisation:
If you had asked me five years ago if I thought I would be dedicating my life’s work to the empowerment of women, I would have confidently said yes. I have spent many years working and traveling abroad and have seen firsthand the dire issues faced by women around the world. If you had asked me five years ago if I thought I would be dedicating my life’s work to menstruation, I would have probably looked confused. Yet, here I am, confident as ever.
As a postgraduate student studying International Development, a group of us were assigned the task of designing a water and sanitation project for rural Kenya. We thought about what females do each month when they are menstruating. How do they manage their bodies in these types of settings? What do they use? How does the community treat them? Surely these were important questions to ask and address when designing a water and sanitation program. Right?
Well, not exactly. It turned out it was a major gap in development and a huge public health issue – not just for women in rural Kenya, but globally. Our research discovered that a lack of latrine facilities and affordable sanitary products leads girls in the urban slums of Kenya to miss an average of 4.9 school days every month. Furthermore, we discovered that this issue is not exclusive to Kenya, but is a major global issue. In Nepal, women are confined to huts for one week of the month, vulnerable to sexual attack, illness and extreme weather. In many Southeast Asian communities, menstruating females are not allowed to consume the same water facilities as the rest of community, for fear of contamination. The most common ways women in many developing communities manage their periods is through the use of mud, tree bark, rags, newspaper, and pulled mattress stuffing. In some urban communities in East Africa, it is not uncommon to wash used pads found in the trash and reuse them. We were astonished. We knew menstruation was a taboo topic, but we had no idea the effect it was having on the gender disparity, women’s hygiene, and their overall quality of life.
And so, Femme International was founded.
Femme is a non-profit dedicated to advancing the rights and freedoms of women through education and personal health. We believe that by teaching feminine health education and essential hygiene, young women will be better able to attend school and work as well as participate in daily activities, thus systemically reducing the existing gender disparity. Femme has developed a Feminine Hygiene Management (FHM) program and is currently partnered with 6 schools and 2 community foundations in the Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya. In our inaugural year, we were able to reach over 200 young women, and plan to reach another 500 this year.
Our FHM program has two major components: EDUCATION and DISTRIBUTION. Participants are led through a series of interactive workshops about female anatomy, reproductive health, essential hygiene, menstruation, and menstrual management. Key to the success of these workshops is the creation of a safe space for young women to ask questions about their body. In the past, discussion has often evolved to include more sensitive topics such as sexual health, rape, masturbation and loss of virginity. It is the establishment of this safe space that makes the FHM program especially effective, as this might be the only opportunity for these women to have these open discussions.
Femme Kits are distributed to participants once they have completed the workshops, and are designed to contain everything a woman needs to manage her period in a safe and effective way. Central to the Kit is a menstrual cup – a surgical grade silicone cup that can be re-used for an average of ten years. The Kits also include a small towel, a bar of soap in a protective container, a handheld mirror, and a small tin bowl to wash the cup.
Femme’s program is a simple solution to a complicated and ever-ignored problem. Through education and distribution, the culture surrounding menstruation in these communities can be affected. Of course, the menstrual cup is not a solution for every community. Femme is working to develop Femme Kits that incorporate a reusable pad as well. A reusable pad would be a great solution for communities where the hymen is valued or for our younger elementary school participants, who are not yet physically comfortable inserting a menstrual cup.
Co-founder Sabrina Rubli
In Mathare, the community has been incredibly receptive to the program, and it has impacted accessibility to education. The school attendance rates of female students who have participated in the FHM program have increased significantly. Many of the girls have told us that they no longer feel shame around their period. One girl told us she no longer saves her lunch money for pads; she used to go without eating in order to accommodate her period. And another told us how thrilled she is to be able to play sports every day of the month. She used to stay seated all day and refused to participate in recess during her period. They all tell us how amazing it is to not feel embarrassment anymore and they thank us for giving them confidence in themselves and their bodies.
With co-founder Sabrina Rubli
We cannot do it alone. We are a growing organization and we need the support of our community. Please help our cause by donating a Femme Kit to a girl in need. At a cost of only $35CDN (£20), you will cover all of the expenses associated with the Kit and educational workshops. You can donate by clicking here.
Please consider donating to Femme International. I am currently raising some money amongst my friends and family so that together we can sponsor a few girls. Every bit helps!