From Goulds to Uganda

Danette Dooley
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Newfoundland native spearheads campaign to help African girls

There are girls in Uganda who miss a quarter of the school year because they're too embarrassed to attend class while menstruating.

When Carrie-Jane Williams of Goulds learned that, she decided to do something about it.

"They were risking the humiliation of having leakage and having blood on their legs, then having to go up in the front on the classroom to write on the board," Williams explained during a recent telephone interview.

(From left) Elise Morin (also of St. Johns), Carrie-Jane Williams, and Alex Doucet of New Brunswick, promoting Afri-Pads at the African Peace Festival in Vancouver. Submitted photo

There are girls in Uganda who miss a quarter of the school year because they're too embarrassed to attend class while menstruating.

When Carrie-Jane Williams of Goulds learned that, she decided to do something about it.

"They were risking the humiliation of having leakage and having blood on their legs, then having to go up in the front on the classroom to write on the board," Williams explained during a recent telephone interview.

A graduate of Memorial University, 26-year-old Williams teaches high school in Vancouver.

She learned of the girls' plight after reading a doctoral thesis by her colleague, Shelley Jones, who worked with young women attending secondary school in rural Uganda in 2004-05.

"They told Shelley that they'd been using newspapers, dried leaves and mud to absorb their flow," Williams said.

Before she went to Uganda in 2008 to conduct research for her master's thesis (through the University of British Columbia), Williams contacted Lunapads - a Vancouver-based company that makes reusable menstrual products.

She fundraised to bring 50 Lunapads feminine product kits with her to Uganda, consisting of reusable cloth pads and liners.

Her idea was backed by Jones and Daniel Ahimbisibwe, a Ugandan librarian who was Jones' research assistant in that country.

Williams was overwhelmed by the response she received in Uganda.

"I talked to the girls under the tree in the school yard. I told them that I'd heard this was a problem for them and if they felt comfortable discussing it that I had a solution for them. They were so excited. I gave the kits out and some of them were trying to get more, they just loved them," Williams recalled with a laugh.

She soon set her mind to trying to find a way to turn her reusable pad kit idea into a business - one that would not only help young girls during their menstrual cycle, but would provide employment for local women.

In Uganda, Williams met Sophia Klumpp from Connecticut and Pauls Grinvalds from Ontario, both of whom were volunteering at a resource centre in a Ugandan village.

After hearing about her business idea, they came onboard as co-founders of Afri-Pads Limited.

"I went to them with the pads I had left and we used that as a pattern," Williams explained. "We sat down surrounded by some old material. We went to the sewing machine, and about half-an-hour later, the first pad was made."

Afri-Pads is a registered business in Uganda, thanks to a generous investor from the Netherlands.

The pads are made in a large workshop by 12 tailors and four assistants who are kept busy with orders from non-governmental organizations, clinics, schools, and local girls and women, Williams says.

A social worker manages the site and goes into schools to talk to the girls when the pads are being distributed.

Some of the girls working as tailors were participants in Jones's research. But their employment with Afri-Pads is much more than a job, Williams says.

"Our girls are excited about having choice ... the choice not to get married off to an older gentleman because he's rich in cattle, the choice to work, and the luxury of having some money."

Williams is striving to increase the number of tailors to 25 and to have a second location with an additional 25 tailors open by April 2010.

Jones is now an assistant professor in the department of curriculum and instruction at the State University of New York, Potsdam.

Afri-Pads, she says, not only responds to the need for women to have access to sanitary materials, it also represents a model of environmental responsibility that should be given attention throughout the world.

Jones describes Williams via e-mail as "a remarkable and inspiring young woman, who models an important reconceptualization of helping those poorer off in the world."

"There are numerous projects around the world that are designed to help others less fortunate, but there are not many that robustly and constructively respond to the specific needs articulated by those being helped, or that involve supporting the recipients in developing a sustainable enterprise of which they will take full ownership and eventually meet their own needs," Jones says.

Jones says Afri-Pads is not a charitable project, but rather an undertaking of enablement and empowerment.

"The young women who are involved in Afri-Pads are learning that they there are ways of overcoming traditional obstacles and that they, themselves, are capable of making important changes in their societies," she says.

Williams is currently working to establish the Afri-Pads Foundation of Canada.

SUBHEAD: How you can help

Anyone who'd like to support her cause can visit website www.afripads.com, where a donation of $5 can purchase a reusable menstrual kit for a Ugandan schoolgirl.

"This is a very small thing that we're doing but it can make a very big difference," Williams says.

danette@nl.rogers.com

Organizations: University of British Columbia, Afri-Pads, State University of New York Afri-Pads Foundation of Canada

Geographic location: Uganda, Goulds, Newfoundland Vancouver Connecticut Ontario Netherlands Potsdam

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