In numerous developing nations, the stigmatization of menstruation and the lack of access to affordable sanitary supplies have serious developmental and economic consequences for women. According to Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), 18% of women and girls in Rwanda miss out on school and work because they cannot afford menstrual pads. Sometimes they even feel forced to substitute rags, mud and leaves which is not only humiliating, it can lead to infection and disease. Most will simply stay home from school or work while menstruating. In Rwanda alone this translates to a possible GDP loss of $115 million each year.
In 2008, Founder and Chief Instigating Officer Elizabeth Scharpf witnessed this phenomenon among factory workers in Mozambique while on an internship for the World Bank. She started SHE with the goal of providing women with greater access to both menstrual products and basic health education. Her interest ultimately led her to Rwanda. There, the organization looked to existing women’s groups and community health networks to create a micro capital business model that would allow local manufacture and distribution of the pads.
SHE seeks to build business opportunities in every stage of its production process. It provides equipment and training to Rwandan banana farmers so that they can process the fiber and sell it to SHE—providing incremental revenue opportunities from something that was once discarded. The fiber is brought to its community factory to be cut, carded, washed and solar dried. Finally, it is made into menstrual pads that are sold affordably to women and girls.
SHE’s return on investment helps fund wider health initiatives like educating both men and women about the basic aspects of menstrual hygiene management and advocating with the Rwandan government to support access to menstrual products and health services countrywide.
As of 2019, SHE reported that 4.3 million people had been reached through advocacy and media, 60,101 girls and women had access to the organization’s Go! pads, and 793,590 Go! Pads had been made and sold. SHE has a full-time operation in Rwanda, and offices in New York City.