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Diana Sierra Headshot
Pablo Freund Headshot

Empowering Women by Design

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The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently pledged to advance gender equality. However, this major global challenge has been on the agenda for decades, whilst women continue to face enormous social, economic and cultural barriers to achieving real equality. The challenge is that some of the fundamental barriers to women's empowerment remain hidden, such as the lack of access to products and education to properly manage menstruation.

Throughout the world and particularly in less developed nations, as a result of deeply entrenched power dynamics, taboos and norms, feminine hygiene remains poorly understood, veiled in silence. Menstruation is not simply a normal bodily function. Instead, it is surrounded by stigma -- it is often seen as an affliction, causing women deep anxiety, shame and fear.

In many religions and cultures, menstruating women are considered impure or are associated with evil spirits and curses, which result in lifestyle and well-being limitations imposed on them. These beliefs severely limit women's social participation and often result in neglect, deprivation and even violence. Underlying the cycle of punitive attitudes that encumber women's health is the absolute lack of sanitary facilities and limited access to menstrual hygiene management (MHM) products. This ultimately reinforces the stigmas when blood stains surface, and a natural biological cycle that could be easily managed in private becomes every girl's and woman's public nightmare.

The tragic result is that the absence of MHM products is keeping millions of girls out of school for many days per school year out of fear of humiliation and retaliation. I became aware of this while working for Millennium Promise in rural in Uganda, after a schoolteacher told me that 40 percent of schoolgirls drop out due to the lack of viable sanitary pad options. The existing ones are too expensive or just a piece of cloth is used, which is barely effective at best. This, in turn, leads to lower academic performance and higher dropout rates. Access to safe, reliable and affordable MHM products is a major obstacle to women's empowerment and a leverage point to significantly improve women's health globally.

As a woman and as a designer, I felt a deep sense of responsibility to address this issue and create a solution, as designers do. Using only the materials I had on hand: an umbrella, mosquito netting, thread, scissors and a needle, I made the first prototype for a reusable and washable waterproof pad-holder/pouch that attached to the panties and could be filled with any available safe disposable or reusable absorbent material -- e.g. toilet paper, cotton wool, gauze, repurposed cloth- giving women and girls the option to adapt it according to their access to water and available resources.

Having found a design approach to address the causes and repercussions of this silent crisis, I partnered with Pablo Freund, a fellow champion of design for sustainable development. Together we founded Be Girl, a social enterprise with the mission to empower women and girls by designing extremely affordable and high performance products that can radically improve their quality of life and fulfill their potential.

Appropriate technology design requires understanding the needs of the end-user through a whole-systems perspective and starts by testing the assumptions. Initially, our design attempted to re-create the convenience of disposable pads in an affordable way. However upon hearing: "I feel relief, these pads don't cause burns as the thick cloth does, I can walk normally" from a girl who had to walk for miles to get to school and back everyday, it was clear that improving the performance of MHM products was just as important as making them affordable and available.

The journey to effectively designing a product that can comprehensively address the complex challenges faced by women and girls is ongoing, often leading to unexpected design considerations. For example, water scarcity and the safety and social risks triggered by the outdoor drying of menstrual cloths required that the materials used for the design be not only durable but also water efficient and fast-drying. These details are rewarded when a 14-year old girl Abigail Chanasi reports: "The light material takes little water to wash and dry easily in my bedroom." However, the outcome of this design choice goes beyond the immediate implications. By adding the waterproof component to augment the performance of cloths alone, girls need less material to keep them protected, which can reduce the amount of water needed to clean menstrual cloths significantly. For example, a possible reduction of 70 percent means about 200 gallons of water less a year, which directly translates to an average of 150 miles less to walk to fetch that water. The ability of a single product to have such far and wide reaching repercussions in the lives of people has further solidified our user-centered process and our commitment to constantly improve the solutions we offer.

Today, in collaboration with Columbia University and Millennium Promise, Be Girl has executed four successful test pilots in countries with 200 girls. Their participation and feedback has been central to the evolution of the design. Initially Patience, a 15-year-old from Ruhiira, Uganda reported the effect of lack of access to MHM products: "You suffer a lot; in case you 'stamp' [stain] the boys can make fun of you which causes you to lose your self esteem [...] it's embarrassing when you are washing your soiled clothes. It makes you not even want to go to school." However, after participating in the Be Girl pad pilot she reported: "I could do my daily activities normally without any fear or anxiety. It's nice! Not even your neighbor can imagine that you are wearing one."

Be Girl aims to make a small intervention with the maximum impact: one girl, one pad, one year. Our goal is to make these pads available to anyone that needs one regardless of how challenging the environment, in order to help close gender gaps and give each girl and woman their chance to fulfill and unleash the incredible potential that exists in every human being.