Maxi pads to the rescue!

Harvard Business School grad to help Rwandan women and girls get monthly coverage they need.

Published March 31, 2009 4:45PM (EDT)

It may be hard to imagine from here in the U.S. tell-all-of A., where an enterprising young gal can edit and publish an entire anthology about getting your period for the first time, that in other parts of the world menstruation and lack of supplies to deal with it remain a real barrier to education and employment for women and girls.

Harvard Business School has selected its first-ever Social Entrepreneurship Fellow, and the recipient, one Elizabeth M. Scharpf, a 2007 HBS graduate, is working to bring low-cost sanitary napkins from locally  sourced materials to women and girls in developing countries. With her $25,000 grant from the fellowship, Scharpf will help fund the work of her start-up, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) in Rwanda, so that women and girls there won't have to miss work and school when they're bleeding. 

"In interviews with more than 500 women and girls in Rwanda, we found that half of the girls interviewed are missing school due to menstruation, primarily because sanitary pads are too expensive," said Scharpf in the press release announcing her award. "Lack of access to pads affects not only the prospects of girls and women, it also has significant macro-economic consequences for countries -- in fact, we estimate a $115 million loss in GDP per year in Rwanda alone."

SHE is developing a sanitary pad from local materials which will cost 30 percent less than currently available brands. Local women will manufacture and market the pads, and eventually become owners of the business through microfinance loans. Women must use rags, bark or mud when they don't have other supplies, according to Scharpf's Web site.

Harvard Business School gave SHE the award, because it will not only address this bloody topic, but create jobs in the local community, encourage sustainable agriculture and open up new discussions about sexual health.

Who knew that the humble sanitary napkin could be a force for social good, and an agent of change? Allow us to add a big Broadsheet round of applause to Scharpf's growing list of well-deserved accolades.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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