The Power of Positive Partnerships in Sierra Leone
Having access to menstrual health supplies — something that many women take for granted — is truly a life-changing privilege. In Sierra Leone, the impact of DfG Kits has been incredible!
Uman Talk (translation: Woman Talk) is a project to produce DfG Kits in Sierra Leone, managed by Schools for Salone (SfS), a Seattle-based nonprofit, and Programme for Children (PFC), a Sierra Leone NGO. SfS’s mission is “advancing quality education in Sierra Leone through local partnerships.” PFC’s mission is “to work with families and children in need of social and educational support and community development in a manner that builds reliable human and sustainable development with respect for the values of the communities in which the organization operates in Sierra Leone.”
These two organizations have been working together since 2004 to build educational opportunities and empower village communities; SfS has served as the U.S.-based fundraising partner, and PFC staff have the local connections, rapport, and cultural understanding necessary to effectively and respectfully implement programs in communities across Sierra Leone. (Especially with topics as sensitive as reproductive health, having Sierra Leoneans oversee and conduct program implementation opens the door to much higher trust and openness in communities.)
I joined Schools for Salone in 2014, as we were beginning to work on the extreme need for hygienic feminine hygiene supplies and reproductive health education in Sierra Leone. Schools were closed for eight months during the Ebola epidemic that year; many girls were left in extreme poverty with few protections against sexual assault. During this time, teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone rose by 50-65%.
Even when schools reopened, we noticed a drop in attendance among girls who had reached puberty, starting as early as 9-years-old, especially in rural areas. We did more research and found that 20% of girls were missing school specifically because they didn’t have menstrual health supplies. These concerns became a focus are for SfS and PFC as part of our larger vision to make it possible for all children to go to school. By mutual agreement, in October 2015, PFC began developing health talks to address these issues.
Two PFC social workers, Juliet Rhoman and Mannah Fawundu, began conducting reproductive health education in our schools for girls and boys in early 2016, and distributing DfG Kits we had shipped and carried in our luggage from the United States. In July 2016, SfS received a $3,000 grant to send Juliet to the two-week Days for Girls University (now called Leadership Launchpad) in Uganda to receive additional training in reproductive health and establishing DfG Kit production projects.
After learning how to make DfG Kits, how to source materials and develop local supply chains, and how to manage the business side of a social enterprise, Juliet graduated at the top of her class!
In September 2016, Schools for Salone received the U.S. Embassy Freetown Girls Mental & Physical Health Grant to fund the start-up cost of Uman Talk. Our wonderful team of four skilled seamstresses, led by Juliet, began producing DfG Kits in May 2017.
Positive Response, Overwhelming Demand
I am so excited about Uman Talk because every girl in Sierra Leone deserves education, safety, and dignity. Our goal is to make sure every girl and woman in Sierra Leone has access to feminine hygiene supplies, clean water, soap, and the information she needs to thrive.
Our kit production headquarters is in Freetown, with a satellite production location in Bo so we can make kits more readily available in other parts of the country. The SfS/PFC team has now distributed over 700 DfG Kits made by Uman Talk to girls across the country and given reproductive health education to over 1,500 students. Other NGOs and government entities have also purchased DfG Kits from Uman Talk and distributed them to an additional 2,200 women and girls.
The positive response to this project has been overwhelming, as has demand for the DfG Kits. To meet the country-wide need for sanitary, dignified, and affordable menstrual health management supplies among all women in Sierra Leone, we are continuing to scale the kit production portion of our original Uman Talk project. With access to menstrual hygiene supplies, women in Sierra Leone can get their days back.
We have high hopes for producing and marketing DfG Kits in Sierra Leone that can make a significant impact on health and education for women and girls in Sierra Leone. In the short term, our work is improving self-esteem and school attendance; in the long term, we expect to see entire communities with healthier, more economically stable families.
Goals for the Future
The sale price we would need to set for DfG Kits to recover all our costs is too high to keep them affordable for most Sierra Leonean women, so Schools for Salone applies for grants and fundraises to help subsidize them. Within the next year, our goal is to develop a strong enough client base to achieve project sustainability and remove this reliance on external funding.
Our second goal is to foster relationships with other NGOs in Sierra Leone to help us reach clients in every part of Sierra Leone — and generate enough income to cover our costs and keep producing kits for more women and girls.
Our ultimate goal is to pave the way for women and girls to receive the education and economic opportunity they deserve, building up to a stronger, more prosperous Sierra Leone.
We would like to thank Programme for Children, the U.S. Embassy in Freetown, our generous and dedicated donors, and Days for Girls International for helping make all this possible. In the words of Juliet, “By making these kits available and affordable to women they are better able to prevent sickness, discover their days lost due to lack of access to feminine hygiene product, discover their potential and self-value, are equal participants and agents of social change and are given the opportunities to thrive, grow and contribute to the betterment of their communities.”
Our DfG Kit production in Sierra Leone has changed thousands of lives already — the potential for every woman and girl in Sierra Leone is immense — and we are just getting started!
Natalie Gordon is a program officer for Schools for Salone, a Days for Girls International partner in Sierra Leone. For more information, visit www.schoolsforsalone.org.