How I’m Skirting the Rules

How a Sanitary Pad Project Benefits Both Girls’ Education and the Environment

What if getting your period kept you from getting your education? That’s the sad reality for thousands of girls across the globe. Shana Greene is helping to create a whole new reality by using what may seem to be the most unlikely solution: a destructive plant.

Despite strides in feminism, our periods are still far from an open topic of conversation here in the States, let alone in places with crippling gender inequality, such as rural villages in India and Kenya. Yet that hasn’t stopped Shana Greene from making it her mission to provide school-age girls with hygienic and affordable menstrual supplies. Why? Getting your period is one of the biggest reasons for missing school in these communities, making girls more likely to fall behind, drop out, and get stuck in the cycle of poverty. In fact, the Times of India reported that nearly a quarter of Indian girls drop out of school once they start their periods, and about 70 percent say their families can’t afford pads.

Shana, founder and director of Seattle-based Village VolunteersEmpowering Women. Period.—a nonprofit that develops micro enterprises for impoverished women to make biodegradable pads from fast-growing water hyacinth—is turning the enormous problem of a destructive weed that harms water supplies into a solution. She’s doing this by using the weed as the material to make environmentally-friendly pads. It’s a holistic answer that also boosts women’s earning power by giving them manufacturing and public health education jobs.  The radiantly beautiful and energetic sixty-something skirter Shana shares how her feminine strengths helped lead to a truly creative system that is a victory for girls’ education, women, and the environment.

Empowering Women. Period. is Skirting the Rules by sidestepping the traditional problem-solution models that tightly focus on a single solution to a single problem. We instead developed a solution with a multidimensional approach:  a viable way to handle menstruation, which keeps many girls in developing countries from going to school, while fighting poverty at the same time.

I believe the most powerful feminine strengths that help women get ahead are perseverance, compassion, and empathy. I believe that these qualities are built in to many women’s DNA. We tap into not only our strength, but our ability to understand how others feel. It’s a women’s sixth sense.

The biggest risk I have ever taken is being a social entrepreneur without a road map. I jumped into a field that seemed like a bottomless pit of need and broke it down by studying the “grassroots” and what people on the ground really needed and wanted. Aid is crippling to communities who learn to expect help from those assuming that they are helpless. To the contrary, we find that when we listen, they would rather have the dignity to earn an income and take care of the needs of their families. I’ve learned to listen without judgment and use empathy to fully transform projects in a holistic and lasting way.

An example of how listening to my intuition has helped me is by trusting in the importance of being a good listener. When you listen, and the person knows you are interested in their viewpoint, you will hear what they want to tell you as opposed to what they think you want to hear.

For example, the issue around not having access to biodegradable or hygienic menstrual supplies has inspired foundations and nonprofits to try to find solutions.  However, organizations need to ask the people they’re trying to help what works for them, and not make assumptions when offering solutions. Case in point: Re-useable cloth pads are known to lead to infections when there is no available soap, water, and privacy to wash and dry the pads. Girls often dry them under their beds and wear them damp, which causes fungal and bacterial infections. Also, menstrual cups or tampons are taboo for young women in many communities around the world, and therefore often aren’t accepted. For us, the key was to make a biodegradable pad that was also a sustainable and viable business that provides health insurance and a reasonable living for the women manufacturing pads.

My secret talent is the ability to collaborate with many people and to turn ideas into action.  For Empowering Women. Period., a giant leap needed to be taken to think that one problem could possibly solve another. The issues around water hyacinth and how people are losing access to fresh water, fishing, and the biodiversity of their lakes because of it was in no way related to girls not having sanitary pads.  Still, my team and I were able to collaborate and find a solution because we realized that water hyacinth was absorbent. My intuition was telling me there had to be a way to make affordable biodegradable pads from the destructive aquatic plant that destroys water supplies and the fishing industry. Actually, perhaps my secret talent is that I don’t give up, especially on what I believe to be something that will change the lives of women. This particular project has been nearly eight years in the making.

A woman is most powerful when she uses her intelligence, logic, and intuition, and her choices come from the heart.

The female disruptor who most inspires me is my dear friend and Empowering Women. Period. partner, Urmi Basu, who is also the director and founder of New Light. Urmi is a fearless warrior for women and the children of sex workers in Kolkata, one of the oldest red light district in India. She is aware of the stats, such as how 40,000 new trafficked sex workers enter the city each year, but won’t be deterred. Instead, she continues to seek out creative solutions for marginalized women, children, and survivors of trafficking and promote gender equality. For example, to help prevent another generation from turning to sex work, she opened homes for the children of sex workers so they’d have a place to go for safety. Here at New Light they also get an education, offering them alternative job options and a path to financial independence.

My advice to my younger self would be to travel before I had children. When I was in my twenties, I felt the urgency to be on a life path that was mature and responsible. All of that urgency could have waited while I explored the world. I’ve had that opportunity since. However—with family responsibilities and young children—there were more challenges since I had little people depending on me.

My biggest rebel move was refusing to ask for funding for our sanitary pad project from a big-name US foundation because they work with Monsanto and exclusively support the use of genetically-modified seeds for farmers in Africa. On a continent so rich in biodiversity, I am passionately opposed to their agricultural practices. In Africa, 80 percent of the agricultural production comes from small farmers, who are mostly rural women. It would not be unusual to see women with babies on their backs handling chemicals and planting seeds covered with fungicide. Taking a stand against the foundation that supports this farming method is a rebel move because they have so much influence on philanthropy in the US. But I couldn’t live with myself if I compromised my life-long mission of protecting women and children, even if it meant helping my nonprofit’s, Village Volunteers, bottom line.

My favorite “mini-skirt” is calling my 91 year-young friend Gloria when I need a pick-me-up. She always inspires me with her youthful energy. Gloria goes for long walks in Central Park almost every day, continues to travel to far-flung places such as Egypt, and never stops learning about things she is interested in, such as by taking literature classes. I think surrounding yourself with inspirational people of all ages helps keep you young.