Susannah Henderson, the originating spirit behind Project Mwezi, was introduced to me by Tamsin Jones, a student at the Said Business School and one of our Skoll Scholars. Susannah is a medical student at Hull (and a freelance seamstress), but we met for the first time in Kenya last summer.
Project Mwezi is an inspired approach to a problem that has been largely ignored by formal institutions. (An overview in PDF form is available here: ProjectMweziOverview.) The work is done on a purely grass-roots basis, with education running upstream and downstream, and the product designed in an open-source fashion. A collective that now includes maybe a thousand women is thus focused on independently solving the obstacle that menstruation presents for girls’ education in Africa.
The reusable cloth pad this group has designed can be made and used by anyone, anywhere. The design itself is constantly evolving, through input directly from users. In fact, for our test, Susannah wrote to tell the women’s groups making the pads that all the product made for our order must be exactly the same because a standard form was required for scientific research! Susannah’s warning gives us a clear and positive indication of the participatory nature of production for these pads.
It is because I know users have been involved in the design of the pads that I thought it was important to include the Project Mwezi pad in the test. As explained in a previous post, I have been concerned all along that people who insist African schoolgirls should use a cloth pad as the price of education (unlike their American counterparts, who consume four or five times as many pads), are very often ignorant of the actual conditions in which the product will be used–and, therefore, they do not understand the constraints on care and the tests of reliability. So, it seemed that a product designed and made collectively by women in that situation would provide an important reference point.
The Project Mwezi pad begins with two flat, circular pieces of cloth, made of a flat cotton cloth like poplin. Between the two circles is a piece of plastic, also in a circular shape. The three circles are bound together with a zig-zag stitch for strength. You place the circle in the crotch of the panties, then fold the sides back (like wings) and snap. There are two strips of elastic attached at either end of the section where the poplin covers the panties. Into these strips you insert a rectangle of soft fleece cloth, also provided in the kit. The fleece can be stacked or supplemented with other pieces of cloth, if the flow is heavy.
The washing and drying problem that plagues all cloth alternatives will also apply to the Project Mwezi pad. Because the circular snap piece is thin, however, it dries quickly. The inserts are also thinner than, for instance, the Comfort Pads that KMET makes, as well as the Afripads. Since the inserts do not have plastic in them (as the KMET and Afripads products do), they may dry faster. The ability to dis-assemble and dry in pieces may make the whole system more usable.
Our “test driver” reported that the Project Mwezi pad is reliable in use, easy to wash, quick to dry, and comfortable to wear. However, it does “ride up” when you walk.
All of the cloth pads we are testing attach to the crotch of panties and so do assume that the user owns underwear. In our previous work, we have found that this is not a fair assumption, so we have, in the past, provided panties for the girls in our tests.
Susannah’s pad is produced by hundreds of women working in their own, local groups. They use fabrics that are available locally at a decent price, so the product specifications can vary. Access to a sewing machine is preferable for producing these pads. You could make them by hand, however.
The Project Mwezi pad costs 50 Kenyan shillings per pad. Susannah feels you need four of them for a single monthly period, so we are buying four for each girl, at a total cost of US$2.39, a smaller initial outlay than the other two pads. The lower up front cost would probably have a big impact on acceptance if the girls are to pay for their own pads. Each kit, depending on care, will last between three months and two years. If we assume the Project Mwezi pads last as long as the other two we are testing, the average cost per month would be about twenty cents. However, my own judgment is that the pads will not last quite as long as the other options, as the construction appears less sturdy to me. However, I stand ready to be proven wrong.
This concludes my posts about the pads we are using in the upcoming study. In the next week, I will return to this topic to discuss a new story about sanitary products in India and the implications of an A. C. Nielsen study suggesting that poor sanitary care leads to reproductive tract infections. I also wish to talk about the way product design in a school we know in remote Uganda affected acceptance of the sanitary pads provided to the girls. So, I hope that those following this story will continue to check for these related posts. I am “tweeting” this series, for those who use Twitter.