Jean Bowers describes herself a Maker of Things. “I’m an introverted art nerd with a day job that kind of fell into this amazing opportunity to make a change in girls lives,” says founder of the Pink Polka Dot Project, a local iniative helping girls in Uganda stay in school and succeed.
“Imagine your life without access to feminine products. Many girls in Uganda drop out of school due to this very problem. Girls are missing an average of two weeks per term because of their periods, causing them to fall behind and eventually drop out,” Jean shares. “Girls who drop out are generally married off to much older men. Educated girls are more likely to take control of their lives, get better jobs and raise healthier, more educated children. Reusable sanitary pads can last a girl her entire school career.”
The Pink Polka Dot Project began in 2014, although the organization’s name didn’t come until 2015. Jean learned of a group headed for Uganda on a medical mission. “I read an article years earlier that stuck with me. It described the huge dropout rate of girls because of their periods….it can be up to 30%. The rural villages don’t have access or the funds to buy sanitary products. Most girls don’t even have underwear,” Jean says. “I only had two weeks to sew, but the group agreed to take as many kits with them as I could get done. I made 20 kits. Each kit included a waterproof base, several pads in various absorbencies, a carrying bag and a pair of underwear.”
Jean’s passion and maker skills positioned her to create change and make a big difference in the lives of these schoolgirls.
“Hearing about how happy the girls were when they received the kits was amazing, so I decided to raise funds for more fabric and go with the group in November (2015). The Pink Polka Dot Project, named after the pink fabric I use that the girls loved so much, was created as part of my fundraising campaign,” explains Jean.
This time, Jean had more lead time to sew items and do further research. “I was able to redesign the pads to be more effective in their environment. They needed to dry quickly, because the less they look like a sanitary pad, the more likely the pads are allowed to dry in the sun. This in turn helps disinfect them,” Jean expounds. “We distributed 100 more kits to the same school which meant that every girl got one. The girls were very appreciative, and the ones who had kits from the previous year indicated they were very helpful.”
While on the trip, the Regional District Commissioner and the Chiefdom requested implementing a program to teach the girls and their teachers how to make the pads. “We were all floored, because women’s issues are not usually a priority there, and my pad project was just a little side thing that I did while tagging along and helping on the medical mission! These Ugandan men understood the importance of educating the girls in their district rather than marrying them off at a young age, so they want help to solve this problem,” explains Bowers. “Having their support and request for assistance is so huge, we have to try to make it work.”
So what’s next? “We are researching all of the details that go along with setting up a new program of this size. It’s about finding out the cost of locally sourced fabric, equipment and sewing machines in these areas of Uganda. My goal is to provide as many girls as I can with sanitary pads.”
“My original idea was to make pads each year and send them with group to distribute,” Jean continues. “I knew it wouldn’t make much of a dent in the over 7,000 secondary school girls in the district, but I felt that if even one girl stayed in school, went to college and improved her village as a result, it would be worth the effort. The hope is to create a sustainable program that will enable women and girls to sew their own sanitary pads. This long-term strategy will have the capacity to sustain the mission versus relying fully on donations. Also, setting up test groups to research and discover the best pad design, one that can be sewn on a pedal-powered sewing machine since electricity is not available.”
If you are interested in the Pink Polka Dot Project and the organization’s mission, Jean is absolutely looking for help. “I would love advice from anyone who has experience starting up programs in East Africa, particularly Uganda. I’m sure we will need advice from attorneys and help setting up a nonprofit, depending on the route we go. And of course donations are going to be critical as we progress further, so help with fundraising would be appreciated,” concludes Jean.
For more information about the Pink Polka Dot Project, to donate funds, get involved, help out or contact Jean directly, click on the links below.