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To the rescue with sanitary pads

By | May 21st 2011

At only 22, Grace Ochieng has blazed the trail with New Visions Sewing Cooperative, which brings together village tailors to sew sanitary pads for poor girls. She spoke JOSEPHINE OPAR

Her epitaph profile should read: born to lead, lives in the real world, and is interested in positive change. Grace Ochieng started work on her Sh800,000 project, New Visions Sewing Co-operative, last year. That same year, she was invited to attend the prestigious Clinton Global Initiative university conference in April, to receive an award for her work in Lwala village, Western Kenya.

"I looked around the village and realised that many women had sewing skills but could not put their skills to use due to lack of resources. So I came up with the perfect project that would earn them income and improve life for girls in the village," she says. And at 22, she is managing the huge responsibility of empowering women both older and younger than herself in Lwala to sew. She targets primary school girls.

Grace and her mentor Teddy Wariah display her award at the Clinton Global Initiative university conference in April last year.

Currently, New Vision Sewing Co-operative has eight women in full-time employment and 12 in partial employment as subcontracted tailors. About 2,000 menstrual pads were manufactured, and the project coordinated the manufacture of 400 school uniforms for girls in Class Six to Class Eight in Kadianga, Minyenya, Lwala and Kameji Primary schools.

The organisation made about half of the uniforms and sub-contracted parent tailors at each of the primary schools to make some of the others. About 2,000 cotton bags were also manufactured in conjunction with the project’s partner, Thistle Farms.

Strategic partners

Thistle Farms is an American social enterprise run by women who have survived violence, prostitution and addiction. To eke out a living, they make and sell natural bath and body products. Another partner on board is Got Your Back, a non-profit organisation that provides school uniforms to children in need worldwide. New Vision’s partners are working to change lives by supplying sewn sanitary pads and uniforms to pupils.

Grace is grateful to The Davis Project for Peace, which initially supplied her with the capital to start the initiative. The Davis Project for Peace encourages undergraduates of the American colleges and universities in the Davis United World College Scholars Programme to implement sustainable micro-finance projects over the summer holidays.

Just in its third year, the Davis Project for Peace has already attracted the brightest and best of American scholars looking to improve communities with workable grassroots projects.

Grace beams with hope for the poverty-stricken girls, saying that her group of tailors and their partners have made such an impression on the girls.

Says she: "They now know that someone cares".

When asked what the biggest challenges are, she cites dispelling social taboos about menstruation and marketing the pads.

"Menstruation is a normal thing that every woman goes through. But the way we approach it and treat women and young girls disadvantages them," she says, especially noting that proper hygiene should be taught to girls and that those who cannot afford pads should be assisted so that they do not miss classes.

Some of the sanitary pads manufactured.

With regard to marketing, she says: "Girls in high school think they are too cool to use reusable pads and many who can’t afford to buy sanitary towels are also embarrassed to buy ours, which are sewn. Also, we cannot compete with the big players in the industry. This has meant securing any small market we get."

Despite having lived abroad for over seven years, this Diaspora darling is still attached to her roots in western Kenya. She may have left the country for the US at 14, a year after her mother passed away, but her African identity is still in tact — as is her Dholuo and Kiswahili.

Grace is preparing for her finals in Chile, where she spent the spring semester in her study-abroad program. She is on full scholarship at St Lawrence University, New York.

Says she: "I have learned to keep moving and go for my dreams. I take the constructive criticism and drop the rest."

Grace may be 22, but her strength of character and community service are a testament to the potential of our young Kenyan citizens.

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