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An Ethiopian ‘Hero’ Works to Rebuild Girls’ Dignity

Girls attend school in Ethiopia. (Photo: Courtesy of Joni Kabana with Dignity Period)
Girls attend school in Ethiopia. (Photo: Courtesy of Joni Kabana with Dignity Period)
An Ethiopian 'Hero' Works to Rebuild Girls' Dignity
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Freweini Mebrahtu remembers when she returned to her home village in northern Ethiopia. She saw women bending down and sitting over holes in the ground. Without any cotton padding to use during their monthly period, the women had to stay in this position.

“How is that possible? And they were telling me that they don’t even use underwear,” Freweini told VOA. “And that was the turning point for me… And that’s when I said, ‘You know, I’ve gotta do something. Why is this thing bothering me over and over again?’ So that was it.”

The more she thought about the problem, the bigger it appeared. Two out of every five girls have been forced to miss school during their periods, with many eventually leaving school. Older women were using old cloth or grass because they had no padding. Women and girls, she found, were being shamed by their community during their menstruation.

“We’re talking about …equality and all that stuff. But when the basic necessity of a young girl is not fulfilled, how is that possible?” she said.

In 2009, Freweini founded the Mariam Seba Products Factory in the city of Mekelle in northern Ethiopia. The factory makes reusable pads that can last up to 18 months. They cost 90 percent less than pads that are thrown away each month. Freweini joined up with an aid group called Dignity Period, and together they have given away more than 150,000 free menstrual kits made by the factory.

The work is having an effect. Dignity Period has recorded a 24 percent increase in attendance by girls in schools where they offer services.

This month, the American broadcaster CNN recognized Freweini as its Hero of the Year. The CNN award includes a prize of $100,000 to support her work. She said the award was an affirmation of a decision she made many years ago to move from the United States back to Ethiopia to make the pads.

“People thought that I was crying because of the whole event. But it’s the whole timing issue,” Freweini told VOA. “It must have been God’s willing it to happen, the way it happened.”

Her work, she says, is not done. She noted that there are 30 million women who menstruate in Ethiopia and most cannot get cotton pads. Additionally, there is a 15 percent value added tax on many menstrual health products.

“It’s not just Ethiopia…even in the U.S. there is a tax issue… we hope that everyone will make a sensible solution and a sensible change in making this a reality for all,” she said.

I’m Susan Shand.

VOA’s Salem Solomon reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

padding – n. clothe sewn together to take up liquid

menstruation - n. to have blood flow from your body as part of a process that happens each month

shamed - v. to feel dishonor

fulfilledadj. feeling satisfaction or happiness

kit – n. a collection of tools or other objects for personal use

affirmation – n. to show a strong belief in something