In the United States, there are organizations set up to help those in need, and whether families be lacking food, health care, or diapers, the compassion of those who ban together makes communities stronger, and the country a better place to live.
But outside of our nation's borders, there are still communities in need and resources that are lacking. Donna Terpstra has made it her mission to see to it that girls young and old in African countries have supplies they need for the natural cycles of womanhood. It's Our Mission–Period is an organization founded in West Michigan that brings awareness to "the desperate need for basic hygiene products for women in underdeveloped nations." Through first hand experience during her travels in Africa, Donna has witnessed the shame and suppression women encounter simply because they are women.
On the surface, this problem is due to a lack of feminine hygiene products. When money is scarce, women are forced to do without pads or tampons, or to turn to more drastic measures. Sometimes, women seek out used pads in garbage cans, wash, and reuse them. Obviously, this leads to illness.
It's Our Mission–Period produces and provides kits of washable, reusable pads. Each completed kit makes three pairs of mesh briefs–it is not typical for women in African communities to wear underwear–three shields that snap into the briefs, ten tri-fold absorbent liners that lay on top of the shields, and one "Mary Bag" made of water resistant material for carrying dirtied clothes. The purchase of a kit, for $25, provides the purchaser with a pattern template and all other materials necessary.
Donna hosts sewing bees in addition to providing the kits to local churches and missionaries who travel to third world countries to introduce the system. Within that country, the kit can be taught to a group of students in a school who then perfects the process and teaches it to the younger girls. As the process continues, the need for the product grows.
"The first step to this process is to introduce the solution of the washable, re-usable menstrual cloths. This is a new concept within their culture and will take compassion, trust, and time. We introduce the concept with the cooperation of the school and its staff. We provide the cloths, train the staff and the girls in proper use and care. We then let the product/solution speak for itself," Donna writes on the organization's website. "Instead of waiting for the next boat or missionary to show up, they are fully capable of doing it themselves. If we give them the equipment, we should work ourselves out of a job," she says.
The kits have a functional purpose, but what's more is that their distribution is bringing educational opportunities, ownership, and empowerment to the communities where they are supplied. Donna says that because of their period, one hundred million girls currently enrolled in schools globally may drop out of school. In addition, girls' tests scores are lower than boys' because girls miss school approximately 25 percent more than boys.
"A girl absent from school due to menstruation for four days in twenty-eight days (a month) loses thirteen learning days, equivalent to two weeks of learning in every school term. It is estimated that within the four years of high school the same girl loses 156 learning days, equivalent to almost twenty-four weeks out of 144 weeks of learning in high school," Donna writes. "No woman should be cursed to dis-empowerment by the natural process of monthly periods. The bottom line is that the natural process of menstruation should disadvantage no girl."
The other piece of Donna's mission is to ingrain significance into the girls who are brought up to think little of themselves and negatively of their bodies. Donna says that in polygamist societies where she travels, the girls see themselves with the same worth as a cow. When they are as young as 14 years old, their families marry them off–at home they are the parents' responsibility and expense, once they are married, someone else has to take care of them.
"At that point they feel that a woman's [purpose] is for a man's use. My [mission] is to re-instill value into their gender so girls know indeed that God made them, the word says, 'fearfully and wonderfully made.' There is purpose in their life, and in their cycle. It's not an unclean curse."
Donna knows that in order to turn around the negative thinking surrounding women's periods, she has to look at the big picture. But the process begins at home. Her message to women everywhere, not just Africa, is to reevaluate the miracles that are a woman's body and its function.
"There is such a taboo over a normal bodily function," Donna says. "We keep a box of Kleenex on our desk, but we hide tampons under the sink. Why should there be shame attached to what brings life? Women need to learn to embrace it. There's a purpose in it."
Written by: Erika Fifelski is West Michigan Woman magazine's editorial coordinator. She graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in journalism. Erika was born and raised in West Michigan, and after a brief stint on the sunrise side, she's home and loving it. She enjoys yoga, gardening, vacuuming, and discovering new ways to live sustainably and support local businesses. Photos provided by: Donna Terpstra