“If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves.” — Emily Dickinson

Here's the Little Thing: Help provide sanitary pads for schoolgirls in developing countries. That keeps them in class during their monthly periods. The young women finish their studies, further their educations, get good jobs, improve the economic stability of their families and communities, get better health care, and, Big Thing: get out of poverty, and live happier lives.

“A simple thing like a 10-cent sanitary pad could be the great lever to drive economic activity,” said Elizabeth Scharpf, founder of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE). As a Harvard grad student researching a project in Africa, Scharpf learned about the problem of girls and women missing school and work because of menstruation.

During a factory tour in Mozambique, the woman who ran the facility told her five of 25 workers would be absent on any given day because they were menstruating. 

“I was just taken aback — then shocked, then outraged,” said Scharpf.

“It’s not just this town in Mozambique, but across Africa, in Asia and Central America,” she said. Girls used tree bark, moss, rags, even mud as makeshift sanitary napkins.

So after grad school, Scharpf pounded pavement, knocked on doors, talked to leaders in health care organizations. Her first goal was to find suitable, cheap, eco-friendly raw materials so women could make the pads locally.

Rwandan women suggested using plentiful banana stems. Scharpf then got assistance from experts like Marian McCord, associate professor of textile engineering chemistry at North Carolina State University.

McCord is working with students and colleagues to modify a device that now processes wood pulp, so that it will work with the banana materials. They want to keep the process simple, so that average people, not just scientists, can turn a variety of local fibers into absorbent materials.

But there’s still an 800-pound gorilla in the room: Nobody is comfortable talking about menstruation.

“Some of the male students just gave me some blank stares and said, ‘Could you explain what you’re talking about?’” said McCord. And when she was interviewed by a local male TV anchor about the project, he only referred to the sanitary pads as “the product.”

“I have two older brothers,” said Scharpf. “When people ask them what I do, they say, ‘She’s in … health care,’” she laughed.

Women, too, are still skittish about the every-28-day reality experienced by half the planet.


“Whether you’re young, old, urban or rural, when you go to the bathroom, you stick the tampon deep into your pocket,” said Scharpf.

SHE’s goal is to have production franchises within the countries they serve — owned by women, run by women, creating aesthetically acceptable, biodegradable pads for pennies apiece.

Scharpf said the first processing facilities could begin operation early next year, depending on funding. SHE is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

“We are looking to individuals, family foundations and corporate sponsors. We feel passionate about we’re doing,” said Scharpf. “We want this to be long-term and sustainable.”

It also brings a different kind of satisfaction to McCord.

“It is extremely energizing, very motivating,” she said. “The return on investment is measured in a broad impact on women’s lives.”

MNN homepage photo: dantela/iStockPhoto