There’s a simple reason girls in sub-Saharan Africa–and many other parts of the developing world–miss school more often than boys. When they have their period, and they can’t afford (or find) a pad or tampon, they often stay home rather than risk making a mess.
UNESCO estimates that one in every 10 girls in Africa misses school during her period and that eventually leads to higher dropout rates. That affects entire communities; the fewer girls graduate, the more the economy suffers. If every girl in Ethiopia finished school, by some calculations, it would add $4 billion to the country’s economy.
One potential solution might be a pair of panties that takes advantage of supplies girls already have access to. A simple waterproof pocket can be stuffed with toilet paper, rags, or anything absorbent.
“It’s kind of like a Macgyver-style panty,” says designer Diana Sierra.
When Sierra was in Uganda a few years ago for an internship as part of a masters program at Columbia University, she learned by chance about the problem of menstruation. Young girls were trying to attend the workshops she was leading for older women, and she eventually discovered why they weren’t in school.
As a product designer with more than a decade of experience, she decided to try to come up with a solution. “We took a look at the resources the girls already had,” she says. “We knew that they were using pieces of cloth. We knew that they were using cotton from the garden, pieces of toilet paper. But they were lacking a way that these pieces could stay in place.”
Sierra quickly hacked together prototypes using materials she had on hand–an umbrella and some mosquito netting–and began testing early versions with girls nearby. The first version was a pad that snapped in place, with a pocket in the middle that could be stuffed. It was an immediate success.
“This is not even about the product itself–it’s about how girls feel when they have the product,” she says. “It’s about feeling empowered…One of the girls said, what I like most about the pad is that I feel proud to be [a] girl.” That gave the product a name: BeGirl.
While there are other reusable menstrual products out there, like the DivaCup, they don’t necessarily make sense in the rural developing world. “You have to take solutions in the context of the environment,” Sierra says. “Menstrual cups, which are really popular in the reusable space, are really good if you have good access to water and hygiene.”
The BeGirl products also have to be washed, but because they’re made with a quick-wicking “performance” fabric, they can be rinsed in less water. They also quickly dry inside–an important factor when girls are ashamed to hang anything menstrual-related on a clothesline.
The taboo around menstruation also led the product to evolve into a panty, something girls were less ashamed to talk about than a pad. (During tests, Sierra also discovered that many girls didn’t necessarily have a pair of panties–making a pad on its own less useful). It’s a little bit like a lower-budget, more flexible version of Thinx, another period-specific panty.
“People find it really hard to talk about a pad, especially in this area that we work,” she says. “It’s like the boogeyman. It’s something nobody wants to talk about. But a panty, people don’t care. Everyone has bought a pair of panties at some point.”
As BeGirl prepares for a large pilot test in Ethiopia next year, the startup also plans to launch a version of the panties in the U.S. “We designed this in Africa, but it doesn’t mean it’s a solution just for Africa,” she says. “Environmentally sustainable solutions should be accessible to everyone.”
The U.S. launch will also help fund the project–as each pair of panties pays for another pair in the developing world, and in theory, keeps another girl in school.