Retaining dignity, advancing empowerment

In many African countries, some people call a woman’s menstrual cycle, “a period of shame.”

Without access to feminine hygiene products, girls resort to sitting on cardboard, tearing apart mattresses, using tree bark, grass mats, cornhusks and chicken feathers and in some of the saddest cases trading sex for pads.

At a whopping $1 per pad in countries where the daily wages average $1, the budget for girls’ hygiene gets left out.

During this “period of shame,” most girls stay home from school.

In Kenya alone, more than 3 million girls miss on average six weeks of school per year, therefore not acquiring an equal education as their male counterparts.

Their stories are all too real to Elk Grove resident Njeri Thubei who grew up in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Growing up I had the same experience. Sanitary towels are very expensive. We used cotton. The batting, you just cut it. It was all Mom could afford. Times were extremely strenuous. We used tissue which was very uncomfortable,” Njeri said.

With $200 in her pocket, money fundraised by friends and family, Njeri, a single mom, flew by herself to the United States in 1993.

Wanting to provide a better life for her then 9-and 7-year-old daughters Njeri found a way to bring her daughters here two years later.

Just as her community in Africa helped her financially, a Novato pastor paid for Njeri’s daughters to join her.

Additionally, the pastor gave them a full college scholarship. With that said, both daughters graduated from university.

Now, Njeri’s eldest daughter lives in Point Richard, her second is in New York and her youngest son and daughter are in high school.

In gratitude for the community’s support, Njeri vowed that when she was financially able she would help girls in Africa.

In 2013, she founded nonprofit Upendo Women’s Foundation.

Since then, Upendo, which is Swahili for “love,” has helped 2,500 girls in Africa access sustainable feminine hygiene products.

With the goal of reaching 10,000 girls this year in Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi, Upendo wants to encourage and empower all women while at the same time provide for their very personal needs with dignity.

“I believe that given equal opportunities, all girls can get empowerment through access to quality education. Growing up in my teenage years I remember how difficult it was to attain the feminine hygiene products; many girls in my own neighborhood missed school because of this.” As the founder and Executive Director of Upendo Women’s Foundation, Njeri’s vision is to make sure that every girl and woman in Africa has a ready and feasible access to quality sustainable hygiene and health education by 2025.

Her goal is to help bring a community of people together to make this happen. (See her GoFundMe page at www.gofundme.com/upendowf).

In South Land Park’s Alice Birney Public Waldorf eK-8 School, Mr. Chris Whetstone’s eighth grade class has collaborated with Njeri in sewing 100 dignity packages, which will be hand-delivered to girls in Kenya this summer.

The packages include two panties, washcloths, eight foldable pads that look like Always Wings pads but are made of 100 percent cotton flannel fabric and snap in place, each with different colors and designs.

AB principal Mechelle Horning decided to make this an ongoing eighth grade community service project.  With money that they received through a grant she purchased two sewing machines, which are used exclusively for this project.

In addition to serving at the Sacramento Food Bank and Loaves and Fishes, Whetstone agreed to have the class participate in Dignity Kit project.

The scope of the project complemented classroom instruction about Africa and the sewing instruction they received in their handwork class and began at the beginning of the year, getting donations.

“The timing was serendipitous,” resource specialist Lynette Weaver said, explaining the interdisciplinary scope of the project.

Describing the eighth graders’ enthusiasm for the project, she said the first thing she saw as a result of Njeri coming to the class to present the project was that she “really struck a chord” when she talked about how the issue of girls missing school due to their periods occurs worldwide.

The students’ excitement spread to their parents.

“People were becoming involved. People started donating supplies,” Weaver said.

Six students represented Whetstone’s class on April 30 as part of the Sacramento County Office of Education Action Civics Initiative.

The students at Alice Birney wrote notes to include in the kits containing their mailing addresses, allowing them to get started as pen pals with the girls in Africa.

“Most of these girls don’t know what a hug is. I tell them, ‘If you don’t give me a big good squeeze hug, you will not get a kit,’ Njeri said. “Culturally, they don’t hug and they’re probably coming from single-family homes with five or six of them inside. And they probably never heard the words, ‘I love you.’ I will hold their faces and say ‘I love you.’ They cry. They feel valued. They have no idea we are bringing these items and their smile is priceless. They probably never felt that touch. I come back home feeling like I am on Cloud 9.”

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