Today I got to attend a meeting of Sylvia's Sisters, a small, local nonprofit made up of volunteers who provide sanitary pads to girls. It sounds like a simple mission, but it has a big impact. In many areas of the world, days of menstruation mean days of missed school. In Uganda, an uneducated, unskilled worker earns approximately sixteen cents an hour. Women represent the majority of unpaid and unskilled labor. No girl should have to miss school every month because of a lack of supplies needed to manage menstruation.
I've never considered feminine hygiene products a luxury. That's because I've never been without. I so loved meeting these women today--and learning that young men at the schools and events Sylvia's Sisters attends are listening with respect and a new understanding. This is not just a "women's issue." It effects the education, social life, health, and potential of millions of women worldwide.
This organization does so much on so little! For the next year I am picking up one package of hygiene supplies every single time I go to the grocery store. Just there for half and half? Still, one box of Kotex. Shopping for the whole week? One box of tampons. Seriously only at Kroger for ice cream? That's one more box of Always for Sylvia's Sisters. That's my promise--and the least I can do. Money works as well if you want to donate! You can do so here.
Here's my conversation with Jennifer Taylor, founder and president of Sylvia's Sisters.
Jennifer: Sylvia's Sisters feels very honored to be nominated by Laura Davidson for a High Five. I did not know Laura was going to do this but I can tell you that I cannot operate our non-profit without volunteers like her. Everyone at Sylvia's Sisters is a volunteer. There are no paid positions. We do our work because we care about women and girls (both locally and abroad) being able to manage menstruation with dignity and without financial strain. Our main goal is keeping girls "in need" in school every day of school. We want them to be able to feel confident, comfortable and ready to learn every day they are in school and also at home. We believe that education is an essential element to end the cycle of poverty among women and girls.
H5RVA: How did you get involved in Sylvia's Sisters?
Jennifer: In 2013 I first became aware of feminine hygiene product insecurities among women living in extreme poverty, after my son's travels to Uganda and other developing countries with Carnegie Mellon University's (CMU) Create Lab. I was told about this issue by a remarkable Ugandan woman, Sylvia Namukasa. She explained to me how girls during their menstrual periods were missing school as much as 5 days a week each month because disposable sanitary pads are too expensive or are not readily available in rural areas of Uganda. With this information in mind, I enlisted some of my local RVA friends to help make washable reusable feminine hygiene kits. We named ourselves Sylvia's Sisters. The CMU Create Lab delivered our first shipment of kits to over 300 women and girls in Uganda in June, 2013. Since then we have delivered thousands of kits to Uganda, Tanzania, Haiti and Nicaragua. In 2015, after learning that many Richmond, VA area girls were coming to school wearing feminine hygiene products too long, we decided to help our local girls. Wearing these products too long can create health and social issues resulting in absenteeism. We began to hold local disposable sanitary pad drives. We teamed up with Communities in Schools (CIS) of Richmond and (CIS) of Chesterfield to provide School Nurses and CIS School Counselors with sanitary pads for girls to have at school and at home.
H5RVA: Collaboration with other agencies is something Richmond is getting better about! How does partnering with another nonprofit (Communities in Schools) help extend your capacity to reach those who need you the most?
Jennifer: We are a non-profit made up of people from different faiths. Because of this we benefit by reaching out to everyone and not just one community. We have sewing volunteers from local church sewing groups. We are often asked to supply kits to various local church mission groups who are planning medical mission trips. We are grateful for their willingness and ability to transport our washable reusable kits abroad. We have been fortunate to be able to hold disposable product drives for our local girls through various local businesses, organizations, schools and churches. We are extremely excited to work with CIS because they have already identified schools and students who are "in-need.” They get our donations to the schoolgirls who need them the most. We also have a new RVA giving partner, Lottie Belle Lingerie LLC, who this fall will launch their new business and will begin giving us a percentage of their sales.
H5RVA: I'm lucky enough to never think of feminine hygiene products as a luxury. How does not having access to these products affect the lives of girls and women?
Jennifer: Many girls in other countries use unsanitary materials, such as leaves, old newspaper, old rags and anything that they can find during their menstrual period. This is all due to poverty and/or lack of access to products. Washable/reusable sanitary pads are the only workable solution to their problem. There are many taboos surrounding menstruation that many girls face in developing counties. Girls often do not finish school and are frequently married off at an early age. In the U. S. many women and girls are wearing feminine hygiene products way too long due to poverty. Wearing these products too long can create a health and social issue for females. Feminine hygiene products are not covered by food stamps.
H5RVA: Do you think people know this is an issue in Richmond as well as in the developing world?
Jennifer: No! This is an issue that people still find hard to talk about so it does not get addressed. We know that there are students in our Richmond area who go to bed hungry or homeless. There are other issues that go along with poverty that people do not think about. Managing your menstrual period is just another hurdle for females living below the poverty line. When you think about it, if you do not know where your next meal is coming from you certainly do not know how you are going to manage menstruation. Menstruation should matter to everyone, everywhere. Half of the world’s population will experience menstruation. Women and girls should be able to manage their menstruation in a safe, hygienic way and with dignity.
H5RVA: What's the best way to support Sylvia's Sisters?
There are many ways to support Sylvia's Sisters. We are a 501(c)3 registered public charity. We rely on direct public support to continue the work that we do. You can make a monetary donation by visiting us online at www.sylviassisters.org. There you will also learn about opportunities to help. We always need volunteer sewing partners to help make our washable/reusable kits that go to developing countries. Sylvia's Sisters is looking for individuals who are willing to conduct disposable sanitary pad drives for our local public school girls through their work, church or other organizations. We are asking people to talk about feminine hygiene product insecurities and take action to be a part of the solution. Thank You!
THANK YOU, JENNIFER, AND ALL OF SYLVIA'S SISTERS FOR THIS AMAZING WORK YOU DO IN THE WORLD. HIGH FIVE!