Freweyni Mebratu has won this year’s CNN hero of the year award for her work in producing washable sanitary underwear known as “Mariam Seba” in Mekelle city. Her work in facing what is commonly perceived as a taboo and helping young women has made her one of the top ten nominees for this award. After receiving the award, Freweyni made an emotionally driven speech thanking CNN for recognizing her work and saying that this award is not only for her but for all young women.
In this day and age, it is not uncommon to find some countries, cultures and religions that perceive the female’s natural menstrual cycle as a taboo. In some African and other countries, women and young women are excluded from religious and cultural activities whilst on their periods. India is one of the countries in which the society sees menstrual cycles as taboo and seventy percent of rural women are exposed to diseases and death from menstrual sanitary complications due to unawareness and extreme poverty. Twenty eight percent are unable to attend school during their periods because they are labeled ‘dirty’. In Ghana, women and girls are forbidden to cross a river named ‘Efin’ while on their periods because there is a belief that they might offend the gods and spirits of the river. According to UNISEF’s report seventy five percent of women in rural Ethiopia do not have access to proper sanitary napkins and fifty percent of them are unable to attend school because of that.
Making “no girl shall be unable to attend school because of her period” her motto Freweyni states that what she had experienced during her first period was a motivation for this work. “Society has little awareness about menstruation and I grew up not knowing what it was because no one was willing to talk about it” she said. Freweyni is around 40 years old and works in producing washable sanitary underwear that can replace the normal sanitary napkins. Having finished studying chemical engineering in the US, she remembers seeing her first modern sanitary napkin there in 1983 which made her think of all the women back home who have no access that and want to make affordable sanitary napkins for those of low income backgrounds.
Freweyni came back to her country after the revolution but observed that the taboo against menstruation has not changed at all. “People still were not willing to talk about” she says “what a woman goes through in those days is difficult. Due to low income and poverty women use pieces of fabric to wash and reuse during those days. What is worse is there are those in rural areas who are unaware of the purpose of underwear and sanitary napkins of pads. And no one can solve this problem except us women.”
Mariam Seba is named after Freweyni’s child and is produced in Tigray and distributed for a cheap price in the region and also in Afar. It can serve well from 18 months to two years, has the ability to contain large amounts of fluids and is very comfortable. It has no difference with the disposable sanitary napkin and it is manufactured from cotton and fabric that have been produced in the country. The factory started out by producing 200,000 pieces per year but now it is capable of producing around a million pieces per year.
Dr, Louis Wall, who had travelled to Mekelle University with his wife Freweyni to give medical services in 2014, believed that he should be helping his wife and decided to move to Mekelle. After this he started a project called ‘dignity period’ to buy and distribute the company’s products and helping about 150,000 women and girls by spreading awareness about menstruation and menstrual health. In Tigray alone, 800,000 women were provided with this product which has enabled those who were unable to attend school to go back to school. “If this basic problem is not solved, women will not reach the potential they are supposed to reach” says Freweyni and states that it took her two years to convince banks of the company’s purpose.
Although there is progress, more work should be done in spreading awareness about menstrual health and sanitation and breaking the taboo.