Students sit in the sanitary pad making class. (Jesuit Refugee Service)

Mai Aini - For refugee women, having your menstrual cycle each month can be a shameful and dangerous time. Ngisti Zeleke is from Ethiopia and has dedicated a portion of her life’s work to helping forcibly displaced women. She currently serves as a hygiene teacher and instructs others how to make soft, reusable, easy to clean, cotton sanitary pads.

Ngisti initially intended to teach for one month to address the hygiene difficulties the women face while at the refugee camp, but she was asked to stay, and has been working in the camp for more than a year. After working with the women in the community, she quickly realised there was a need to expand the products to diapers, children’s clothing, and school bags, as there were many items in high demand.

Ngisti’s other goal was to garner acceptance and understanding when discussing hygiene materials. “Sanitary pads are not a bad thing,” she says.

Reusable pads address issues such as a lack of water, which can make it hard for women in the camp to maintain cleanliness. Many women also have an irregular menstruation cycle which makes disposable sanitary pads impractical for their environment.

The women Ngisti teaches have benefited greatly from her courses. They’re able to generate income to support their families, improve their living conditions, and become more self-sufficient. Ngisti has noticed that the women she trains have also become more confident. “When they first started training, the women did not speak to me and rarely spoke to each other. Now they ask questions and bring their children weekly and have a coffee ceremony. We know each other. They help one another.”

Ngisti sees room for improvement and hopes to expand the business. Currently, they are able to train the women, but there is no designated space to produce the products. For the future, she hopes to have a place to sell her products in the camp. Ngisiti’s sanitary pad business has transformed her community. The women who use the materials and are taught to make them, always express their gratitude to Ngisti. It is more than a way to generate income. It provides refugee women with support and community and allows them to build a path forward to a more inclusive world, with their own two hands.

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