In 2019, Feweini Mebrahtu won the 2019 CNN Hero of the Year award for her work in helping girls in Ethiopia and other nonwestern countries have access to sanitary supplies. The award came with a $100,000 prize to help her in her quest to keep girls in school by making sure they have the sanitary pads they need.
An Ethiopian engineer, Mebrahtu designed a reusable menstrual pad, which she patented in 2005. Her factory, Mariam Seba Products Factory. sells the majority of the pads to NGOs, which distribute them for free. She employs about 50 local women who create the leak-proof outer shell and the highly absorbent cotton inner layer.
The factory sells kits for about $5.00. Each kit contains two pairs of underwear with buttons that hold the four pads, which last from 12 to 18 months. The kit also contains two bars of soap.
Mebrahtu’s inspiration came when she was in the US studying chemical engineering. She visited a drugstore and saw a vast array of sanitary pads and tampons, none of which were available to girls and women in Ethiopia. Mebrahtu realized disposable supplies might be too expensive, but reusable pads could easily solve this problem.
In Ethiopia, there is a stigma attached to girls who start their periods. They want to find it since it means they are ready to get married. Also, having her period makes a girl impure, so she’ll hide and not go to school. Without sanitary pads, everyone will know she’s menstruating. Many girls would stay home from school, jeopardizing their education and their future. Mebrahtu also talks at schools, explaining menstruation isn’t shameful, just a natural part of life.
Dignity Period is a nonprofit organization created by Dr. Lewis Wall, a gynecologist, and his wife who were inspired by Mebrahtu’s work. Its mission is to provide menstrual period information and provide reusable sanitary supplies. They work in St. Louis in the US and in Ethiopia to end what they call period poverty. According to the organization’s research, school absenteeism decreased by 24 percent for girls in Ethiopia once they had access to sanitary supplies.
Mebrahtu is truly a hero because she took something so basic, a sanitary pad, and turned it into something that gave teenage girls dignity and keeps them in school. If they stay in school, they can help end the cycle of poverty and have a fulfilling career.