Sue Barnes is an extraordinary woman. She has given hope to young girls, she has given them the opportunity to be free, to participate in daily activities, not to feel shamed or embarrassed, and has empowered them – all with a sanitary pad. They have their dignity back, through her initiative, Project Dignity.
For many of us, buying sanitary pads is as easy as buying bread and milk. But this is not the case for millions of girls and women in South Africa. They are at a permanent disadvantage as they are forced to stay at home as they are unable to afford this basic necessity. Barnes was named the 2013 Clarins Most Dynamic Woman of the Year earlier this month in Johannesburg. The event, held at Summer Place in Hyde Park, celebrated the ground-breaking intervention that allows girls and young women in townships and rural areas to attend school while they are menstruating.
“My youngest daughter, who attends a remedial school due to her dyslexia, came home with appeals from her school for sanitary pads and panties,” says Barnes. “I went to the school to find out what it was all about, and discovered just how many South African girls skip school while menstruating. I immediately thought of my own daughter. If she missed a week per month of school there is no way she would catch up. It’s tragic that anyone in their teen years should be faced with this dilemma.”
Girls use unhygienic alternatives to sanitary pads, such as newspaper or even sand and leaves, or sitting on cow patties. Doing this puts them at a huge risk of infection. And, according to Barnes, of nine million girls aged between 13 and 19 years in South Africa, “80% of those were missing a week of school every month… That’s just time you can’t make up and it’s affecting their education.”
A pattern maker and designer with a large clothing chain, Barnes has a background in construction, fabrication and quality control. Using these skills, she decided to design something to address the problem, coming up with her sanitary pad packs. At her own cost, Barnes has been producing these packs and delivering them to schoolgirls in KwaZulu-Natal where she lives. “One pack should last a girl her entire high school career,” says Barnes, who believes that finding a solution to this critical issue is her calling.
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THE PROCESS OF THE PAD
Barnes realised that she had unearthed a massive social challenge and that donations of sanitary products would not provide a sustainable solution. It drove her to find a solution. She designed and constructed underwear with a built-in, waterproof yet absorbent gusset that acted as a sanitary towel.
“It was fully washable and lasted as long a pair of panties does.” But every time the pad needed to be changed, the underwear would also need to be changed and would need time to dry. Each girl would have to have at least 12 pairs. “I then moved on to a [pair of panties] with a built-in gusset and separate sanitary towel which slipped into the gusset, but I found it very difficult to insert and remove.”
After much experimentation and several trial runs, the Subz Panty and Pad evolved. Barnes had created underwear with a clip-on, reusable pad that ensured the girls needed never worry about running out of this essential item.
“It is a normal [pair of panties] with press studs and a separate sanitary towel which has clips on it. The [underwear] is mad of 100% cotton knit and the elastic has a standard, non-woven, rubber base so it won’t stretch out of shape. The pad is 100% cotton with an outer hydrophobic layer and inside hydrophilic layer which is absorbent.”
Barnes says that the panties are washable and will last three to five years. A pack of three pairs of underwear and nine reusable pads costs R150. The pad is fully washable and has SABS absorbency approval. The Subz Panty and Pad has been endorsed by a gynaecologist and pharmacist.
“I know girls are fussy, so I made them out of nice fabric, and they come in all sizes. Initially, I was aiming at helping rural schoolgirls, but all women who menstruate can use them. The added benefit is that they are hugely ecologically friendly.”
While handing out Project Dignity’s Subz packs, Barnes also gives the girls a set of education sessions on puberty, menstruation, personal hygiene, sexual health and HIV.
Well-known fashion designer Gert-Johan Coetzee has collaborated with her in developing two interactive aprons for the education sessions, one depicting the puberty process and the other the menstrual cycle. The body parts on the aprons are removable, allowing Barnes to demonstrate the body’s functioning in a very practical way.
“The eggs are visible in the ovaries and the fallopian tubes clip on and off for ease of demonstration… The uterus is also removable and through the demonstrations the girls can fully understand the menstrual cycle. These are incredibly practical tools to use, and allow us to drive home the vital facts. Ultimately, the process is just as important to the girls as the Subz packs themselves,” she explains.
“A lot of the girls are from child-headed homes and do not have anyone at home to talk to about these crucial issues. Our sessions are very interactive, and Gert-Johan Coetzee’s involvement here has been amazing, in every sense of the word. When a girl asked me once: ‘Where does the blood come from?’ I realised that education on these issues was woefully lacking. If language is a barrier, a teacher or principal translates, but mostly, English is understood,” she says.
“The girls are so excited to get help with this as they don’t want to miss school,” she says. “For some, it is the first time they have received panties.”
With the aid of corporate and personal donors, Barnes has already been able to distribute 30 000 Subz Panty Pads to girls around the country. Project Dignity has spread to other parts of South Africa, and has been taken to Zanzibar by Margaret Hirsch, the owner of the Project Dignity sponsor, Hirsch’s appliance retailers.
MOST DYNAMIC PRIZE
In winning the Clarins award, Barnes received a cash prize of R150 000 and will receive a further R50 000 in 2015 to ensure the sustainability and expansion of the project.
“What I do is incredibly rewarding,” she concludes, “providing a sustainable solution and seeing these young girls who can flourish and contribute to the fabric of our society.”