by Katrina Hagedorn
I’m a teenage girl living in one of the poorest districts outside of Cochabamba, Bolivia, where clean water is scarce and sanitation facilities are poor. My father is a mason and laborer, making little more than $10 per day, and my mother stays home to take care of my three siblings and me. Today is a frightful day for me, because I just started my monthly bleeding. Nobody can tell me why it happens, just that it does. My mom gave me a rag to soak up the blood throughout the day, because we can’t afford the fancy disposable pads. But even if we had the money, it wouldn’t be worth the six mile trek to nearest store that sells them. I’m outright dreading this bleeding. Not because of the blood and mysterious stomach pain, but because I know that after girls start, they tend to have other problems like infections, itching, and burning every time they go to the bathroom. I’m confused and scared, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Refresh Bolivia is an 501c(3) non-profit that serves the health and sanitation needs of underprivileged communities in Cochabamba, Bolivia through infrastructure, education, and research. The story above (fictional but based on the realities of our constituents) outlines exactly the type of problem that Refresh Bolivia works to better. In this region, discussing menstruation is a taboo and feminine hygiene products are inaccessible for several reasons. In 2016, Refresh Bolivia began doing educational menstrual health workshops to aid in the Bolivian women’s understanding of what a period is and why it occurs. In the summer of 2017, we conducted a focus group study to understand the attitudes, perceptions, behaviors, and practices surrounding feminine hygiene. Based on the results of this survey, we determined that developing reusable menstrual underwear would help address the geographic and financial barriers that make disposable pads inaccessible while serving as an opportunity for education and community empowerment. Our first prototype was nothing more than a mesh pouch sewed onto a pair of panties.
In the 2017 Fall semester, the Cambridge Chapter Refresh Bolivia delegated a team of four people to work on improving the reusable underwear design, headed by Michaela Nesson. Due to the women’s personal preferences and the unsanitary conditions of the region, our team only considered external feminine hygiene wear. During the first meeting, we established that we didn’t want to just hand out menstrual pads, because that isn’t sustainable. Instead, we wanted to give the women the tools to empower themselves through having the ability to make their own products and being in charge of their own feminine health. Not only will the women be able to make these products for themselves, but they can also sell the products, using them as a source of commodity.
We divided the semester into three stages: research, design, and production. Early on in the first stage, we realized that a reusable menstrual pad would be much better than reusable underwear due to differences in sizing and the inconvenience of having to change underwear throughout the day. Upon establishing this, we began our research, reaching out to professors for advice, scouring the internet for information on materials, and more. The most helpful thing we ended up doing was ordering and deconstructing modern reusable pads. Combining this design with a design for homemade diapers, we were able to come up with an outline for the materials we needed: a hydrophobic layer to act as a repellent, a hydrophilic layer for slow absorption, and another hydrophilic layer to attract water for fast absorption. We ordered cotton as the bottom, repellent layer and bamboo fleece as the top, fast absorption layer. Dorm Crew supplied us with microfiber as the middle, slow absorption layer.
After our team received the materials, I hand-sewed a pad. At this point, we were pretty unsure that this project was going to finish, but having the tentative design in physical form gave us the motivation we needed to continue on. We ended up replacing the cotton with waterproof PUL, and decided that using a sewing machine would streamline making the pads that we would distribute in Bolivia for research and development.
I was the only member of our group who could somewhat use a sewing machine, but the last time I had done that was in middle school. So, after spending three hours with the horribly old sewing machines in the Science Center, my teammate Cory Ransom and I managed to make three (very rough) pads of two sizes! During the next week (over Thanksgiving break), Michaela, Cory, and I wore the pads to troubleshoot and test for comfort. After tweaking some details, we finally had the finished design!
Ecstatic to have pads to distribute over Refresh Bolivia’s J-term trip, we quickly wrote down pinning instructions and set up a sew-a-thon. Our J-term volunteers helped with pinning while a few people sewed together the products. After four hours, we ended up being able to make 44 pads!
Each pad costs less than $3 to make with American materials, and less than $1 with Bolivian materials.
These pads were distributed to 11 women in Cochabamba (4 each) who will give feedback on the pads and supply advice for improvement throughout the following months. Currently, the Claremont College chapter of Refresh Bolivia is working on perfecting the menstrual pad design and the Cambridge pad team members continue to work with Refresh Bolivia on other projects.
It’s amazing to think that as college students, we were able to do such important and impactful work. I know that I never thought that I could make such a difference, especially being so young, so I know that some people reading this feel the same. However, that mode of thinking is simply wrong. We set our own limits. Therefore, if you see injustice around you and are passionate for change, don’t be afraid to dive in.
Photo: Three women from La Zona Sur, Cochabamba who are participating in our Sustainable Pad Project. They are holding the reusable pads designed by Refresh Bolivia. Written and verbal consent was obtained for photography.