Freweini Mebrahtu is an Ethiopian chemical engineer who designed and patented a reusable menstrual pad and founded the Mariam Seba Sanitary Products factory where these are manufactured. For her work and efforts towards period equity in Ethiopia, she has been named a 2019 CNN Hero.
After getting her chemical engineering degree from P&V University in the United States in 1992, Freweini Mebrahtu returned to Ethiopia to figure out affordable, reliable and environmentally friendly period solutions for adolescent girls and women.
According to UNICEF, disposable sanitary products are expensive and often unavailable. As a result nearly 75% of Ethiopian women and girls do not have access to the menstrual supplies they need to manage their periods.
Mebrahtu's motivation came from personal experience. She is quoted on the Dignity Period website as saying, "I will never forget the experience of having my first period as an adolescent girl. I was shocked and confused. My mother and my four sisters had not told me anything about periods. With all the myths and misinformation, I wanted to hide so that no one would know what was happening. I was confused, depressed and isolated until my friends and I realised we were all experiencing the same thing.
"We would use pieces of old clothing as pads and make sure to bring large scarves to cover ourselves if we stained our clothes by accident. The other challenges were irregular periods, cramps and all the questions that I wanted someone to answer but never dared to ask."
In 2005 Mebrahtu developed a reusable pad, which she successfully piloted in Mek'ele, the northern region of Ethiopia, before she proceeded to patent it in 2006 with the Ministry of Science and Technology.
In 2009 she received a loan from the Development Bank of Ethiopia for US$150 000, which she used to build a factory on 1 500 square metres of land. According to CNN, the factory currently employs 42 local women and produces 600 000 sanitary pads and 300 000 pairs of underwear per year. More than 80% of the pads she manufactures are sold to non-governmental organisations that distribute them for free.
Read: Meet Mary Consolata Namagambe, the Ugandan activist tackling period poverty
"It is important to me that this product is made by women, for women. We employ 43 women today, and they take pride in making the best product. It's also important to help the women to be economically independent, so we provide them with free training, a premium wage, paid vacation and the opportunity to grow," Mebrahtu told CNN's Kathleen Toner.
CNN reports that Mebrahtu's pads are fully washable, with an absorbent cotton lining and waterproof backing. They are secured to the underwear with a button and the design allows it to fold up into a small, discreet package. The pads cost 90% less than a year's worth of disposable pads and can last up to two years with proper care, making them environmentally friendly.
"We also make underwear, along with the pads. Many girls and women in Ethiopia don't even have underwear. This is the 21st century! They can't even go on with their lives," a frustrated Mebrahtu said.
She is also working to change the stigma attached to menstruation. "The goal was not only to make the pads but also to attack the cultural baggage to goes with it," she told CNN. "But the impact was limited, because it was just me working on my own."
"I want to see girls in Ethiopia and beyond having access to sanitary pads and not to worry about being ashamed or scared. Giving pads to these girls means giving them freedom so that they can achieve whatever they want to achieve."
To date her biggest supporter has been the non-profit organisation Dignity Period, founded by a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, Dr Lewis Wall. In her interview on CNN after being named a CCN Hero, Mebrahtu explains that Dignity Period has distributed more than 150 000 free menstrual hygiene kits purchased from her factory. Furthermore, data gathered by the group shows that schools visited by Dignity Period had a 24% increase in attendance among girls.
"The premium kit that we make for Dignity Period consists of four pads and two pairs of underwear. That means a girl can stay in school, worry free, for almost two years. We sell to Dignity Period at cost, which is US$4.10. That means that for under US$5, we can change a girl's life," she added.
"When I met Dr Wall, it was a game changer. He has so much love for women in need. It was such a morale boost. I'm so glad to be working on this issue with people who care as much as I do."
She concluded by saying, "There is no way that I could have done anything else in my life but this. I just want to reach as many girls as possible."