A visit at the washable pads factory
Susan Barnes is the founder of Project Dignity and are one, out of two My Period is Awesome partners in South Africa. To date, Sue and her team has handed out over 120 000 packs of washable pads and panties countrywide and overseen talks at countless school. And there’s more to come. The challenge of reaching all South African girls in need is a daunting one, but ultimately the end goal.
We visit Susan, more known as Sue, at her Subz factory based in the sub-topical city of Durban. Here she shares a manufacturing space with an independent company that produces girls and boys underwear for various retailers.
Upon entering the workshop one is greeted with a flurry of energy as machines whirr and staff chatter. There is chaos of fabrics, fluff and busy workers. It is here that each pack is created and readied to better the lives of thousands of girls every year. Each panty and pad is made here from scratch using mindful touches such as the choice of fabric colour and elastic lining that will be least effected by blood stains.
What began as a minor passion project for Subz founder, Sue Barnes, has now become a countrywide mission helping thousands of South African girls and women.
It was 9 years ago that Sue’s two young daughters came home from school with a note requesting that parents donate sanitary towels to a nearby rural aftercare program. Curious, Sue went to see the school. It was here that she learned that girls in impoverished schools all across the country were regularly missing school for many days at a time because of their lack of access to hygiene products. She felt determined to do what she could to find a more long-lasting solution.
Over the course of the next 6 months she applied her knowledge of fashion design, an area she had studied and worked in in prior years, to developing the most economic and effective re-usable sanitary towels possible.
What resulted was a simple washable pad made up of a hydrophilic (absorbent) inner textile, covered by a softer hydrophobic fabric. These pads are then edged with press-studs which allows the pad to be clipped into a pair of panties also edged with press-studs. The pads and several studded panties are then distributed as a pack, set to last the owner up to 5 years. Additionally, the pads have a very low environmental impact as the reusable quality removes years of added non-recyclable waste to the landscape.
Finally satisfied with the design, Sue created enough stock to distribute to 3 local schools. At that stage the plan was set to end there, but this was all soon to change.
Upon visiting each school, she increasingly realized how painfully little many of the girls knew about what was happening to their own bodies, as their schools provided no sexual education. She became faced with the realization that some girls had no idea why they were bleeding. She was being questioned as to whether they were sick and soon found that few girls understood the relationship between menstruation and pregnancy.
Once again, Sue felt compelled to do what she could to help and began organizing talks at schools. Her talks, which she continues to present till this day, include a from-ground-level explanation of puberty, menstruation and female sexual reproductive makeup. She explains what to expect, the reasons for changes in the body and emotional state, what hygiene methods are advised, as well as debunking many myths that so often breed when things are spoken of in hushed tones. Most importantly, her talks aim to empower girls with knowledge, explaining the complexities of being a woman and ultimately driving out the shame and taboos that they are subjected to because of misinformation and cultural myths.
It wasn’t long after completing her work at the third school, a point at which she had originally planned to be done with the project, that she began to receive calls from numerous schools requesting her talks be presented to help girls at their own schools.
The rest is history.
To date, Sue and her now fully established outreach program has handed out over 120,000 packs countrywide and overseen talks at countless school. The funding needed to keep the project going has never been easy to come by, but thanks to projects like My Period is Awesome, Subz and Project Dignity have made steady progress over the past 9 years.
Subz and Project Dignity now has teams of volunteers in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg presenting talks while Sue remains focused on further extending her aid. Her volunteers, some of whom came from impoverished backgrounds themselves, are driven by their desire to uplift all girls and do away with period shaming once and for all!
This article was written and photographed by Frances Marais in September 2017. The figures presented are updated.