Interacting with Lucy Mary Athieno reveals a warm passionate young woman. Her infectious smile ushers you into her world of dreams and aspirations for the future. Her passion that manifests in her silvery voice emanates deep inside her heart, keeping you glued to her story. And perhaps it is these attributes that Athieno desires every girl could have. Not just girls in Buteba, her home village in Busia at the Uganda-Kenyan border, but in the whole of Africa.
A continent, Africa where girls enjoy their rights to good health and education, and not in any way hindered by what is supposed to be an absolutely normal and natural biological process – menstruation, is what she envisages with her initiative of making reusable and environmentally friendly sanitary pads, the Eco-pads.
Many girls across poor communities drop out of school during their menstruation periods because they lack information or hygienic materials to use. This is a situation Athieno relates with personally.
Athieno was 13. She lived with her three younger siblings. HIV/Aids had claimed both their parents leaving six orphans behind. The year was 1997. Universal Primary Education had just been introduced, so, she attended Buteba Primary School.
Like any other young girl, Athieno enjoyed playing games with her friends, games like skipping the rope or playing netball. On this particular day, she looked forward to the 10am class break to play. But something was amiss. Yet it was neither herself nor her girlfriends who noticed it first but the boys in class. “Eeeh…Athieno,” the boys shouted, loudly. “You have slaughtered a chicken!”
Slaughtered a chicken? She wondered. She did not know what that was supposed to mean but, intuitively, she turned and checked her dress. Her hot pink-coloured dress was stained with blood. Might this be the menstruation I have heard someone talk about?” Yes, it was; her first. “I left, embarrassed,” she dreads to remember. She had no idea what to do. She sat down, in one position, for the rest of the day. It was the only way to stop the boys from making fun of her.
Too embarrassed to return to school
Athieno waited for the last pupil to leave the classroom and everybody else at school to go home before she too rose up to go. She also decided, in her heart, never to return to school. “I would be a laughing stock. I already was,” she says.
At home, Athieno used cloths rags to pad herself. Days passed before she shared her experience with one woman, her deceased mother’s friend. “Now when that happens again,” the woman advised, “You cut up rags and use those. You throw away the stuff after use. Nobody should see your blood. It is taboo.”
That is what she would do in the consequent months. A year later after being adopted by her aunt, and her siblings by other relatives, Athieno was persuaded to return to school. It was not until Senior One at St Paul’s College in Mbale that her aunt bought her sanitary pads. “I used them but that did not take away my bad experience. I still remember meeting a girl who had a similar problem and realised the problem was not unique to me but several other girls too,” she says.
My ‘weird’ idea
Athieno talked to a teacher in Senior One about it and suggested that they cut some pieces of cloth to help the girls but the teacher considered her idea weird. But she felt her idea was not only unique, but realistic. She wanted to make user-friendly sanitary pads that any girl could afford.
She carried her idea through school to university. In her second year at Makerere University in 2008, Athieno shared it with her female lecturer who thought it was a good idea but doubted her ability to make it a reality. The lecturer reasoned the project required huge sums of money to implement which Athieno did not have.
Beginning with bed sheet material
Meanwhile, Athieno volunteered with a women’s organisation in Budaka. Interacting with and hearing girls’ stories there, she got convinced her cause was justifiable. “Many girls were using rags, leaves or sitting in the sand during menstruation,” she recounts. In her volunteering work, she went to Kenya. That was 2010. There, was an organisation distributing sanitary pads for girls. The material in which the pads were made was the very one she wanted to use for project. She inquired about where they got it but no one was willing to tell her.
On returning to Uganda, she decided to use what she could find – the hard cotton materials from the Jinja-based Nytil Garments factory. These were the same materials used for bed sheets. She used part of her salary to buy the materials and cut them into pad-like pieces. Athieno had graduated and was employed by the organisation she volunteered at, earning Shs450, 000 as salary.
She was told about a woman in Kampala who sold unique materials like those she saw in Kenya. But this material, better than one from Nytil, could not absorb blood either.
“What if I inserted something in between two layers of this material, something that would absorb the blood?” That was a million dollar thought. She did not know what that something would be but quiet instinctively went on try something. She inserted a plastic lining in between the two cloth layers. She experimented her pads on four girls and realised the pads absorbed blood, allowing a girl time to change the pad at the next most convenient time. There Athieno had finally had a breakthrough!
“These pads are washable and reusable. If you walked around Kampala, drainage channels are blocked by various materials but these pads are reusable for at least one year, making them not only affordable but environmentally friendly,” says Athieno.
She has since bought four sewing machines to knit the pads-making materials. “So far, at least 300 girls in Kibuku have used these pads. I am looking for resources to increase production for while in the US I made contacts in Tanzania and Ghana to supply the pads,” she says. Athieno attended the inaugural 2014 Nelson Mandela Washington Fellowship, an initiative of US President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. “I want to impact the whole of Africa,” she says. And it appears nothing will stop this 30-year-old from rising higher.
About Lucy Athieno
Athieno founded Aluta Holdings in 2013, a company that holds rights for Eco-pads. Before that, in 2012 then aged 28, she was appointed Executive Director of Kadama Widows Association, an NGO working in Budaka District. Beginning as a volunteer, she rose through the ranks to become ED in three years. Athieno holds a Bachelor of Arts in Industrial and Organisational Psychology from Makerere University, a Post Graduate Diploma in Business and Entrepreneurship from Dartmouth College, USA and she is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Health.
Athieno’s Eco-pads are packaged in packs of four, six and eight pads going for Shs6, 000 and Shs8, 000 and Shs10, 000 respectively.