The stigma and mysticism surrounding menstruation aren’t new notions. But as the process of normalizing periods (and women’s health as a whole) becomes more crucial for the success of women everywhere, one woman is taking matters into her own hands.
Meet Sabrina Rubli, founder of Femme International, a non-profit that provides education, conversation, and sustainable feminine hygiene resources to women in the developing world.
For our readership who may not know, what is Femme International and what gave you the idea to start it?
Sabrina Rubli: Femme International is a Canadian NGO that promotes women’s health through education, with a focus on menstrual health and hygiene! Femme uses education and conversation to normalize the stigma that surrounds menstruation and provides schoolgirls with sustainable and safe menstrual management resources. I co-founded Femme in 2013 when a colleague and I began discussing the high rates of absenteeism among secondary aged schoolgirls and the realization that this was a result of a natural process – menstruation!
The most effective catalyst for sustainable change is an empowered woman, and ensuring that girls are able to stay in the classroom is the first step to building a stronger community.
Can you talk about the facts and figures regarding menstrual health and hygiene education–why is it so important to the developing world? And why make the effort to talk about sustainable feminine hygiene products?
SR: Menstruation is one of the top reasons why girls in developing communities miss school, with UNICEF estimating that one in 10 African schoolgirls have deliberately missed school because of menstruation. Another study found that girls in Kenya will miss 4.9 days each month—which adds up to 20% of the school year! Without access to commercial sanitary pads, girls will resort to using alternative methods such as leaves, rags, newspaper, toilet tissue, even mud. Girls interviewed in Nairobi’s Mathare slum said they would often cut pads in half, or even wash them and reuse them. Not only are these methods ineffective and potentially dangerous, but they leave girls feeling incredibly uncomfortable, which results in them choosing to stay at home.
A package of sanitary pads in Kenya costs around $0.65 CAD—while this may not seem like a lot, for young girls it is a large amount, and not one that is easily accessible to them. Providing girls with reusable and sustainable menstrual management products like reusable pads or menstrual cups removes the financial burden of menstruation, and ensures that they are able to stay safe and clean – every day of the month.
Providing menstrual cups to schoolgirls is something that has set Femme apart from many other organizations doing similar work. Menstrual cups are made out of surgical grade silicone and are inserted into the vagina to collect, rather than absorb, menstrual fluid. Girls can wear them for twelve hours, which removes the need to access a latrine during the school day. Better still, they can be reused for up to ten years!
What’s a challenge you’ve had to overcome running a nonprofit, especially as one that deals with a subject that’s so taboo in the communities you’re working with?
SR: Even though we are working with a very taboo subject, Femme has been lucky to have community support at every step of the way. The school headmasters and matrons we have worked with have all welcomed our facilitators and the program eagerly. They recognize that menstruation is an issue, but don’t always have the resources to address it. One teacher we worked with in Nairobi’s Mathare Slum was purchasing pads for her students herself, because so many of them were missing school! As Femme continues to grow and move into new communities, we hope this trend will continue. Our team always makes an effort to respect cultural traditions and beliefs!
However, we have had people be taken aback by our commitment to menstrual health. A news outlet right here in Toronto decided we weren’t allowed to discuss our programs on the air, or say the word “menstruation” as it was inappropriate! This just fueled our passion to use conversation to normalize the topic.
What has been your proudest moment working at Femme International?
SR: My favorite and proudest moments with Femme are always when I am speaking with the girls that have participated in our Feminine Health Management Program. Hearing that the program is working, and helping them feel confident and happy is an amazing feeling, and inspires me to continue working to ensure that every girl is able to feel that way. The most common word used by girls when describing how it feels to use a menstrual cup is “free”—they are free to run, dance, play games, and go to school.
Do you have any advice for other women looking to start non-profits or NGOs?
SR: I never set out to found an NGO, and it has been the most challenging experience of my life. But it has also been incredibly rewarding. My advice for other women who are interested in starting their own non-profits is to have a good team around you—having support from a network of friends and colleagues makes all the difference. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it, and stay confident in your goals!
Where do you see yourself and Femme International in the future?
SR: Femme has grown a lot in the last twelve months, and it is so exciting to watch. I am going to be moving to Tanzania full-time to oversee Femme’s educational programs on the ground. In five years, I hope to see Femme having teams of facilitators across East Africa, running our Feminine Health Management and Boys Health Management Program in as many secondary schools as possible! I want Femme to be breaking down the menstrual taboo, and starting global conversations to empower women and girls.