We may think it’s a simple sanitary pad. For a girl in a place like Gulu in Northern Uganda, a regular supply of feminine products means access to education and a different future.
As I held the soft cotton undies—pinks, purples, greens, blues—tied together with a package of sanitary pads, I wanted to lock my eyes and reach into every girl’s heart at Laminadera that day, imagining for her an ever-widening trajectory of freedom.
Soft packages with pads and panties seemed small and insignificant against big global numbers of girls dropping out of school and starting down the path of early pregnancy, HIV and a continued cycle of poverty. It felt like Panties vs Goliath. But I knew they were important to the girls we handed the supplies to that day. Those undies and pads meant every one of those girls would be in school for another month.
Back home in Canada, there was a whole conference of us who had gathered undies. Truly a SheLoves Sisterhood. We put the call out and the women came in carrying panties and filling a whole red Community Care bin in the church foyer with undies.
I remember how tired I felt that day between the morning session and the break for the evening—we had a home full of girls from Switzerland, Scott was cooking for conference, we were both full on. But I drove to the store that afternoon, rather than sit on the couch, determined as heck (my teeth gritting, even as I remember that moment of decision) and we loaded up on cotton underwear. I was grateful it was hard even then, because I knew: these panties, they needed to cost me something.
Being part of creating change always needs to cost us something.
For the most part, stepping out doesn’t come easy.
Last Wednesday morning, when our Sweating for Sisterhood: Keep a Girl in School in Uganda post went live, I woke up, hoping to see a screen full of tweets, excitement, buzz.
Instead: at 7am there were two likes on the story and no comments.
As the day went by, the donations started pouring in and, online, we’ve raised $1,205 so far. (Thank you to everyone who has rallied!)
That night, we joined Megan and Chervelle to Sweat for Sisterhood.
But we have a long way to go and I remembered, in that moment last Wednesday morning, how hard it is to do these things. How every time it surprises me just how much work it is to rally support and donations and attention to a story.
Saying Yes to these efforts that release access, I am now learning, is like saying yes to giving birth. Every time I forget how hard it is, because the results are so beautiful and life-giving. And then, when we step into it again, my body remembers, and we’re right back into stretching and backaches and laboring.
I imagine it’s hard, because after centuries of oppression, when we’re awake and aware and want to move, the world doesn’t all of a sudden welcome our little revolution with open arms.
We need to fight for it, now even more than ever. But this “fight” is one of standing together and bringing what we have.
Panties vs Goliath
When Tina and I got on a plane to Uganda last year, we had two extra suitcases just for the undies. Our Thursday night lifegroup girls helped organize those thousand-plus pairs of panties in our living room. We talked about whether we liked the word “panty” or preferred ”undies” or “underwear.” We drank tea. We buzzed about the trip. We organized the feminine underthings according to size–small, medium, large, X-large. We folded them neatly and then the girls sent us off with a blessing.
Lord, make me a carrier.
Lord, let us be women who dance on Access Road.
We flew to Entebbe and drove eight hours to Gulu with our SheLovely Stephanie and her hubby James. And then we entered into a classroom, seeing the very ground where numbers and statistics are really faces and smiles and names.
The heroes in that classroom were the girls who sat in those desks, who showed up for class, in spite of their individual circumstances. I saw the commitment in the warmth of the teachers. The principal invited us into her office, offering the ultimate hostess gift: a crate with 300 ml bottles of Coke and Fanta. We sipped the warm drinks through straws and it tasted like empowerment.
I could feel how much those women cared.
Perhaps because they once sat in those same desks and know that a different world is possible.
Christine Lutara, Coordinator of the Living Hope program in Gulu took us to the two schools that day and answered all our questions. She says this:
“The 21st Century African woman is a woman who has seen all the possibilities that life can offer, but who has no access to it. She is someone who is held back, because the culture still says the men are more valuable. And yet she knows in herself that, given a chance, she can be much more than anyone can imagine her to be.”
Given a Chance
I will keep pounding that red earth and these web waves with this cry in my heart: Access, access, access, for every girl, woman, child. For every person. Doing our part, one project at a time.
Right now, that looks like access to sanitary supplies, which in turn translates into keeping a girl in school.
According to UNICEF, approximately 1 in 10 African girls will skip school during menstruation, writes Marilyn Skinner, founder of Living Hope.
When she has sanitary supplies, however, she goes to school, because she’s not embarrassed or made fun of. She’s empowered.
In February this year, SheLoves Mama Helen Burns came home from Uganda and announced the happy news: Of all the girls who received underwear and makapads last year, not one had dropped out of school.
Not one girl in those two schools that we visited.
I sat in my RelateWomen chair that Wednesday and I actually gasped and then clapped my hands. My eyes filled up … I was a hot mess. Naturally.
We had done something that seemed so little and yet God wanted to do so much. He multiplied our panty offering into a miracle of empowerment.
Reality in the Classroom
I will never forget how Christine Lutara called the girls to stand up according to their grades that day and then we counted.
In Grade 4, there were 28 girls.
In Grade 5, there were 17 girls.
In Grade 6, 14 girls stood up.
In Grade 7, there were 12 girls.
The statistics played out right there in front of us.
Christine asked them why they thought the numbers went down so drastically from Grade 4 to Grade 7.
“Poverty,” one girl offered.
Christine smiled: But does poverty only start in Grade 6 or in Grade 7?
The girls were quiet.
Is there, perhaps, something else that starts around that age that might mean girls begin to drop out of school? Christine wondered.
It was like a light went on for some.
Giggles and whispers and big smiles behind shy hands around the room. O, yes! Monthly cycles.
Christine explained in the most beautiful way how God has created women precious and how the shedding of our blood, too, is sacred flow.
She told them about makapads and caring for self. She talked about the importance of staying in school and getting an education.
Sitting in that classroom jam-packed with all the Grade 4-7 girls in the elementary school, we were women together, women who get their periods. Women in our hot, beautiful, inclusive Red Tent.
It was at once an ordinary Wednesday afternoon and an extraordinary hour that within its very minutes created a paradigm shift. Through the words of a woman who cares, potential that had been locked shut in those girls’ future, clicked and thick gates swung open. Slowly, widely and definitely.
If I now hear about the importance of educating the girl-child, it’s not an abstract number on a girleffect infographic. These are very real girls—girls like Glory and Brenda and Adele–whose future is opening wide as they show up for school and find the resources they need to stay in school.
Pens and pencils and a notebook, yes. Unbelievably committed teachers, yes. But also makapads–the sanitary pads produced by the residents and graduates of Living Hope. There is so much beauty in this whole story. Women who before had been raped and ravaged and spit out by the civil war, are now alive and beautiful and living testimony that goodness can come. They have become living Hope.
These women, in that beautiful compound in Gulu, make makapads out of the papyrus plants that grow wild by the river, recycled paper from the banks and NGOs and a formula developed by a Ugandan professor.
Local solution for this global problem. It’s win-win:
– In Gulu, makapads keep girls in schools.
– Making the makapads, sustains the graduates of Living Hope.
More Schools, More Girls
Living Hope first launched the Keep A Girl in School project in the two schools that Tina and I got to visit last year. We were witnesses to the work. We got to meet the girls. Now they are expanding the program to more schools in the region.
The more schools get sponsored, the more girls stand a chance for a different future.
Last Wednesday we said yes to adopting one school in Northern Uganda. Megan put up her hand and together we all said yes to sponsoring 250 girls, so a whole school full of girls can have sanitary supplies for a whole year, as well as education and training around feminine hygiene and empowerment.
It costs $40 per year to keep that one girl supplied with sanitary pads and underwear, as well as send teams to connect with the girls, support and educate them and hand out supplies.
A few years ago, rallied and led by Tina, we ran a half-marathon for the women of Living Hope. Now we are gathering resources—access—for the girls in the schools in that same community.
So far, we have raised $1,205 online. (We are still waiting for the numbers from the Sweating for Sisterhood event at Christian Life Assembly.)
We already get to sponsor 30 girls out of 250, but we have a way to go.
Only together is it even remotely doable.
Today, we are asking you to come stand with us, please. There are many ways to be involved, so we can sponsor these girls together.
– One girl? Make an individual donation of $40. (Enkosi kakhulu, Lovely!)
– Pair up: Say yes with a friend to sponsor one girl (2 x $20 = $40) (Xie-xie, nimen! Thank you!)
– Rally your sphere of influence: Ask your small group, lifegroup, Bible study group, bookclub, dinner club, running club or a group of girlfriends to rally and adopt a number of girls. (Baie baie dankie! Woohoo!)
– Is this something you want to take on as a women’s ministry in your church?
Already several groups have said yes.
– We are so excited that the Wolf Creek Church Mom Time group in Lacombe, Alberta has said yes to sponsoring 15 girls. (I love these prairie women of heart and action.)
– Shaley and Holly in Coquitlam, BC are gathering and rallying their girls as we speak. (You girls are amazing!)
– Rebecca’s lifegroup–Vantage Church Newmarket Lifegroup–in Ontario has said yes to 5 girls, at least. 🙂 (I love how big and enthusiastically you dream!)
– There are more girls in South Africa and Surrey gathering friends.
Do you want to host a small event, like Claire, who is planning a journal writing party.
Or as one SheLovely said: “I know a number of girls who have very little and may not be part of any group but would love to have a way to quietly give some.”
That just melted my heart.
Are you in? Is there something you feel compelled to do? Please let us know in the comments. We can’t wait to hear!
PS: We will share and tweet more updates with the hashtag #wearetheredtent or check back here for updates. Thank you so much for your generosity, Love and support.
Could you please help us spread the word through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email or talking with your neighbour?
Let’s Keep A Girl in School.
Love Love Love,
All Images: Tina Francis