When I decided a year ago to leave my job to travel, I knew that I wanted service work to be apart of my journey. I spent a lot of time last spring researching and learning about NGOs and different volunteer organizations. I scoured the internet. Read blogs and articles. Bought a couple of books on service work and travel. With so many different options out there my first step was to narrow my focus on what volunteer work I wanted to do. As an educator, I was interested in helping young people. As a coach, I was interested in helping girls. As a woman, I was interested in learning how other women live. I decided to let “women empowerment” and “education” be my key words when searching for programs.
The second thing I had to decide on was what organizations to use. There are so many different ways to do volunteer work abroad. Some people pick a location and once they arrive find ways to volunteer in the local community. I knew that wasn’t my style of travel so I spent time researching exactly which organization I would work with. I was flexible with location so kept my search broad when it came to geographic location. I also wanted to make sure I understood exactly where my money was going when signing up. A common theme that kept coming up in my research was being careful when using organizations, especially NGOs, that had a fee associated with the project. Unfortunately some NGOs don’t always use the money collected for reasons they claim to.
After looking into multiple projects, I came across a women’s empowerment program in Luang Prabang, Laos. After calling the parent organization, GVI, and speaking to someone about the specific project happening in Luang Prabang, I knew I had to sign up and go.
As mentioned in previous blog posts, I spent six weeks in Luang Prabang teaching English to girls. If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to read my post entitled Teacher Kelly to learn more about my time and experience as a teacher in Luang Prabang. I loved teaching the girls. It was incredibly rewarding as an educator.
One of the reasons I choose GVI Luang Prabang Women’s Empowerment Program (WEP) over other teaching programs was the opportunity to participate in their menstrual health initiative. In addition to teaching English, I taught a women’s health workshop. GVI Luang Prabang WEP had recently partnered with the organization Days for Girls (DfG). DfG is about empowering women and girls throughout the world providing them with female health education as well as sustainable, washable menstrual kits. DfG partners with organizations and relies on volunteers and donations to help reach women and girls across the globe. According to information on their website they have reached more than ONE MILLION women and girls around the world. These are women and girls who didn’t have access to clean, sustainable menstrual options.
There were two components of the project – menstrual kits and menstrual health education.
Each DfG kit contains the following: 8 liners, 2 shields, 2 pairs of underwear, 1 wash cloth, 1 bar of soap, 1 plastic bag, a menstrual tracking calendar, and instructions on how to use and clean the items. Each of these items is placed into a colorful cloth bag.
The design and construction of the liners and shields are patented to DfG. The shield has a polyurethane lining in between the two pieces of fabric that helps with absorption. The liners are made of two pieces of flannel cotton material sewn together. The liners are folded into thirds and the ends are tucked into the shield. The shield can hold one – three individual liners so that a female can adjust to the needed protection. The shield is then placed on a pair of underwear and snapped into place.
The shields and liners are designed to be washed and then dried in direct sunlight. Even in circumstances where clean water is not available, hanging the items in direct sunlight is enough to help kill bacteria and allow females to reuse the items. With proper care the kits are designed to last up to three years.
The kits were a labor of love. The shields, liners, and cloth bags were all machine sewed by local volunteers and women as well as volunteer groups from abroad. All the kits were based on donations. Some people donated money for the materials while others donated their time to sewing. Leyla, the Program Director for GVI Luang Prabang projects, did an amazing job collecting materials and kits. Some of the kits and materials came from DfG chapters in Australia while some of the materials were actually sewed and made in Luang Prabang.
Through donations, GVI Luang Prabang WEP has been able to acquire a couple of sewing machines. Local women and girls in Luang Prabang were learning how to sew. This way the liners, shields, and bags could be made right there in Luang Prabang instead of always having to come from volunteer groups in other countries, making it more sustainable while contributing to the local economy.
Menstrual and female health education:
Menstrual health education is the second component. Most of the women receiving the kits are unaware of what is actually happening when they are menstruating or they lack complete understanding of the menstrual cycle and how it relates to pregnancy. By providing girls and women with knowledge about their own bodies, it empowers them to understand what is happening each month. It also helps dispel some misconceptions.
One aim of GVI Laung Prabang WEP Menstrual Health Initiative is for it to be locally led. This means instead of Westerns leading workshops in the field which then have to be translated, local, native speaking women and girls lead the workshops.
Since my skill set is not sewing, I was fortunate enough to help with the educational side of the program. I helped to lead a course in female and menstrual health to local young women who in return would be the ones to lead the workshops in the villages.
Using the DfG curriculum and certification program, I spent four weeks going through the following topics: puberty, male and female anatomy, reproduction, and the menstrual cycle along with how to use and clean the items in the DfG kit. I had two girls, ages 17 and 19 respectively, in the workshop. They were accompanied by a young Lao woman who is one of GVI Laos’ Community Liaisons. She acted as a translator when needed in the workshop but she was also preparing to help lead workshops in villages as well.
What’s important to keep in mind is that I was teaching this material in English so that the young women could understand the information and then be able to teach it to others in their native language. As someone who only speaks one language, it was not lost on me how remarkable these young women were. I’ve taught biology in American high schools. I know how hard some of the material was for my native English speaking students. While their English was pretty strong, they were not fluent English speakers, yet! The girls had to work extra hard at focusing and paying attention to not only the biological information but the English language as well.
After weeks of sewing, assembling kits, and preparing to lead menstrual health workshops it was time to head out to remote villages in Northern Laos. I was very fortunate to be one of two volunteers who joined the Program Manager along with two of the young women in my health workshop.
We went on a five day trip in the Mung Ngoi area in the mountains of Northern Laos where access to education and menstrual products is limited. Over the course of the five days we visited five villages and delivered seven menstrual health workshops in the locals’ native ethnic languages (Khmu and Lao).
In total, 317 DfG kits were distributed to girls and women over the course of seven workshops.
I failed to mention that permission was needed by each village chief. The GVI Luang Prabang Program Manager and her husband, a Lao native as well as GVI Community Liaison, worked hard to meet with each village chief months earlier to gain their permission to come into the villages. The village chiefs, known as a nai bans, were incredibly welcoming and gracious hosts. They provided shelter and prepared our meals.
We used every means of transportation to carry the kits. We traveled by truck, tractor, foot, and boat.
Here are a few other images from the trip: