For many of us in high-income countries, access to health resources such as menstrual pads is something we can often take for granted.
But for the young women and girls of East Kwaio, Solomon Islands, the lack of menstrual resources and education brings struggles of shame, embarrassment and missed school days.
Dorothy Esau of the Baru Conservation Alliance has teamed up with James Cook University’s Dr Michelle Redman-MacLaren to give these girls a method of managing menstruation in a way that supports their health, confidence and dignity.
In the communities of Kwaio, discussing menstruation or menstrual health is taboo due to complex social and cultural protocols.
When Dorothy, a Kwaio leader, heard her daughters and their friends talking about the embarrassment they felt attending school during menstruation, she wanted to help them gain the confidence to go to school – any day, any week.
‘Many students don’t attend school because they don’t have a proper pad,’ Dorothy says.
‘Many girls use dirty clothes or rags during menstruation, so it’s important for us to provide them with clean, hygienic pads to protect their health.’
Michelle and fellow JCU researcher Associate Professor David MacLaren visited Solomon Islands to work on the strategic plan for the Baru Conservation Alliance in February 2020.
‘When Dorothy shared her desire to help the girls who she was meeting in her village, we partnered with her to provide access to resources and funding,’ Michelle says.
‘Although the initial project concept began as a practical one rather than a research project, our team has since done evaluative work and applied research around Dorothy’s practical work.’
Dorothy’s project centres around hygienic pad development and creation.
‘At the very start, we were seeking out designs for pads on the internet and looking at what would be most suitable for a very hot, tropical, rainy environment,’ Michelle says.
‘There are health implications for not having dry and clean sanitary options, so we searched and worked to develop a design that would work best for these girls.’
After a long process of trial and error, the design they developed is a waterproof polyurethane laminate material sewn between an outer cotton casing.
Michelle attained a grant from the JCU College of Medicine and Dentistry to purchase sewing machines and the polyurethane laminate. The other materials were purchased in Solomon Islands. Dorothy and her team of cousins and other local women sew the pads and add clips.
‘After we sew the pads, we take them to the schools and distribute five pads to each girl,’ Dorothy says. ’One of the challenges is making sure that each girl receives the pads.’
Another challenge is the lack of education around menstrual health: ’The students really had no idea about menstruation ... so, now when we go to the schools, we have the help of a nurse and support of a doctor to teach them about menstrual health.’
This education is the first step in reducing the stigma around menstruation. The next will be working to sustain change. Although COVID-19 pandemic restrictions affected the project, Dorothy and her team have still been able to make and distribute pads. Michelle and colleagues have contributed from Australia via regular Zoom meetings, ensuring the team has what it needs to produce the pads.
A year on, Dorothy has seen a major difference in the girls who have been given the pads and education. One of the biggest remaining challenges is that the schools have no toilets and limited or no running water. Recently, the team helped one school access running water.
For Dorothy, Michelle and their teams, it’s about taking the project one step at a time.
‘When we started this, it was just a small program, but now it is a big program,’ Dorothy says.
‘I always tell the women I work with that we can start small, and that’s okay. Because small is beautiful.’