Submitted by Jonathan Porter
Working in aviation in the more rural parts of West Africa we often come across interesting issues that are generally not thought about. One of those challenges is how young women handle the challenges of menstruation and schooling in not so easy to reach communities.
The BBC has over the past few years highlighted issues related to girls in education and their menstruation challenges.( http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4816558.stm and http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8488375.stm ) I think that most of those reading this article, no longer think twice about the availability, usage and disposal of sanitary towels. Yet, many parts of Africa are still to discover – and/or afford - this ‘freedom giving’ invention. In different cases, in parts of the developing world, there have been reported attempts to increase school attendance of girls during their natural monthly menses by issuing sanitary towels, assuming that they knew when and how to use them as well as suitable disposal methods. In some cases there were anecdotal reports that the girls tried to wash them for a second use, on other occasions they were rolled or folded-up and inserted like a tampon, without achieving the desired result. I am sure that many were sold, used by mothers, sisters or aunties, and the challenges go on. The sanitary towel should be as readily available as other ‘modern essentials’ such as iodated salt, condoms, medical care, malaria treatments, academic/vocational education and HIV/AIDS awareness, in my opinion. But they are not, mainly due to limited resources. However, the lack of these things is what, together with other factors, brings about the ‘poverty-pit-of-despair’ – if only we can break the poverty cycle we can climb out of the pit! All we need to do is break ONE link in the chain for the whole chain to give up and release its captives!
So where is this going? I am glad you have read this far and asked the pertinent question!
Well, a pilot recently flew with WAASPS to assess one of his projects from above - which is a really special thing to do. The pilot concerned is a Manager for one of the leading sanitary wear producers in West Africa, based in Accra. Universal Royal Paper Ghana Ltd, produce the Femcare range of products. I have got to know their products and they are a very professional, well presented and functional product which apparently works exceptionally well. (Remember I work with a lot of young ladies, who cannot miss a day’s work because of their natural cycles!). What is more, the Femcare range has a sanitary pad with wings – which also gives it an aviation twist… or am I stretching things too far?
‘Mr Femcare’ was chatting about his product lines after his flight, then we told him about the Medicine on the Move Humanitarian flights to villages using LSA class aircraft. The atmosphere at the airfield developed an instant buzz, as the talk went to rural communities challenges with school attendance of menstruating girls and the like. ‘Mr Femcare’ pointed out that the issue here is distribution – you cannot just deliver school-girls a years supply of hygienic pads in a single community without a negative impact. No, no, no – it has to be more carefully thought out.
Discussion went around and around and finally came out with, what we hope, is a practical and efficient solution.
The village in question already has a monthly humanitarian flight, taking in eye specialists, doctors, nurses, nutritionists, educators, etc. So, when the flight goes in, school records can be checked and all girls with periods who have excellent attendance records can be issued one months supply of pads (with or without wings). That is the easy part!
The challenging part now, is to fly in to the village an education team at the beginning of the school term next month, and to explain, effectively and memorably, to the pubescent girls and young ladies in school the concept, the appropriate usage, disposal, and requirements to be supplied with these products.
Year one will be covered by the Universal Royal Paper company for this particular village as a trial village. If it works (more likely when the proof is available), funding will be needed and sought to take the ‘Femcare Drop’, as we have named it, to other communities. Long term sustainability of this is bound to be a question you are asking right now…. Yup, I thought so!
Well, this is how I see it: I was a beneficiary of British Government subsidised flight training in the UK, but before I could complete my licence they stopped the subsidy. Stopping the subsidy did not stop me continuing and achieving – nor did it stop others after me. What it did do was to kick start a generation into aviation.
Likewise with the ‘Femcare Drop’ I consider initial free issue, and then perhaps subsidy, is a part of creating the awareness, introducing the concept and encouraging the introduction to the communities. I am sure that a few years ago, nobody thought that rural communities in Africa would ever use mobile phones. But it has caught on, the benefits, advantages – and disadvantages are all there. The key thing is that if there is a product or concept that can help to improve quality of life, education and future prospects it should be made available – even to the most rural communities.
We are already looking at many ways of expanding the project after phase-one – including aerial drops to communities without an airstrip or suitable water front for amphibian aircraft to land. Such ideas are great, but they need safety considerations, development and approvals – as well be suitably supplied with product - and funded.
One thing that I never expected with the ‘Femcare Drop’ project, was the enthusiasm of pilots to be involved. Already one pilot has added funds to help it to kick start, and others are offering to pay the aircraft-hire and fly some of the ‘Femcare Drop’ runs.
Patricia and Lydia met with Mr Femcare (also known as Jimmy) and received the first batch of product.
and then passed them on to James from Battorkope and Rosina, our community relations officer, under the wing of Alpha Echo in our maintenance hangar/workshop.
The first community concerned, Battorkope, have just nearly completed the construction of a suitable landing area for regular Humanitarian Aviation Logistics runs, to avoid using the more erratic amphibian solution (weather constraints are a bit more when you are landing between tree stumps sticking out of the water) – and will soon have a party on the strip that they have cleared magnificently by hand. The efforts this particular community is making gives us great hope that, with a small push in the right direction, enough energy can be released to boost each individual to achieve more, do more and be more independent, as they seek to improve their lot today, and that of their children for tomorrow.
Next time you go the supermarket, remember the millions of West Africans who have probably never been into a shop bigger than your lounge, and then look around at all we take for granted. I may be a pilot, but I am a humbled pilot from being involved in projects like this – and I look forward to sharing with you the results as the flights take place...The 'Femcare Drop' should make for some interesting flights, and more importantly,Change Lives, One Flight at a Time!