Freweini Mebrahtu remembers when she returned to her home village in northern Ethiopia and saw women squatting over holes in the ground. Without any sanitary pads to use during their menstrual periods, they were stuck in this undignified position.
“How is that possible? And they were telling me that they don’t even use underwear,” she told VOA. “And that was the turning point for me. I kind of felt the nerves going from head to my toes. 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 examined the problem, the bigger it appeared. Two out of every five girls have been forced to miss school during their periods, with many eventually dropping out. Grown women were resorting to using old cloth or grass as pads. Women and girls, she found, were being shamed by their community during their menstrual periods.
“We’re talking about gender equality and all that stuff. But when the basic necessity of a young girl is not fulfilled, how is that possible?” she said. “How is the country going to be developed when 50% of your society — women — are compromised this way?”
In 2009, Freweini founded Mariam Seba Products Factory (MSPF) in Ethiopia’s northern city of Mekelle. The factory produces reusable pads that can last up to 18 months and cost 90% less than disposable pads. Freweini has teamed up with a charitable organization, Dignity Period, and together they have distributed more than 150,000 free menstrual hygiene kits produced by the factory.
The work is having an impact. Dignity Period has recorded a 24% increase in attendance by girls in schools where they offer services.
This month Freweini was selected as the CNN Hero of the Year and will receive $100,000 to support her work. She said the award was an affirmation of a decision she made years ago to move, along with her 3-year-old daughter, from the U.S. back to Ethiopia to pursue this cause. Today her daughter is 18 and going off to college.
“You know, it was a moment of an amazing journey. And people thought that I was crying because of the whole event. But it’s the whole timing issue,” she said. “It must have been God’s willing it to happen, the way it happened.”
But she says her work is not done. She noted that there are 30 million women of reproductive age in Ethiopia and the vast majority do not have access to affordable sanitary pads. Additionally, there is a 15% value-added tax on many menstrual hygiene products.
“It’s not just Ethiopia. It’s everywhere — developing countries, even in the U.S. there is a tax issue. So, now that CNN has made it an issue for anybody to look at this seriously, we hope that everyone will make a sensible solution and a sensible change in making this a reality for all,” she said.