Sewing in Cramped Quarters

While we are busy building the sewing center in Cap Haitian, our seamstresses and tailor have been busy continuing to sew in cramped facilities. They just completed an order for 65 kits that will be distributed in July and will spend the remainder of the hot Haitian summer constructing 150 kits that are to be delivered in September. We just have the roof to finish on the sewing center but work has slowed while we try to raise the remaining funds. Consider a summertime donation so that we can start sewing in the new center in the fall!

#Menstravaganza

For those of you who have been following this blog over the past few years, you know that I am passionate about all things related to women’s health care. Considering that my job as an Ob/Gyn physician is intimately interwoven with this topic, it is only to be expected that my children are exposed to my opinions during conversations at home. They also hear about my experiences in Haiti and are often recruited to assist with the construction of reusable menstrual pad kits that are distributed to young Haitian girls to encourage them to remain in school after they start menstruation.

May 28th (5-28) is Menstrual Hygiene Day and is dedicated to creating awareness around an often taboo subject. The 5-28 has significance in that most women bleed for 5 days every 28 days. Although Western civilization has made great strides in the past few decades around menstrual health education, the stigma and embarrassment for young girls persists. My daughters and I were finishing a restaurant meal when we noticed that the girl leaving the table next to us had a large blood stain on the back of her dress. We looked at each other with horror while having a hurried discussion about whether it was less embarrassing to run after her and inform her of the stain vs. letting her find out herself. The decision was made as we heard the door of the restaurant close behind her and our chance was lost. Would we have wasted time in discussion if the bleeding had stained her clothes from a large cut on her leg? The blood is the same but the source so much different.

When my daughter informed me that she was combining both of the above experiences into one argumentative essay for her final AP Composition Essay, I had to smile and then pity the male teacher who was to be subjected to her strident opinions. This same teacher (late 30’s) admitted that he has never purchased feminine hygiene products for his wife and had no advice for sources of information to help support her argument that luxury taxes should be abolished on tampons and pads. Because of the work of humanitarian organizations such as WASH in developing world countries and women’s health advocates in this country, resources for information were plentiful.  I have included the first part of her essay below.

Luxurious Taxes

Toothpaste, sunscreen, chapstick, shampoo, condoms, viagra. All daily items, all exempt from taxes. Daily essential items that are categorized as a necessity and aren’t taxed. Items thought to be a luxury, however are taxed. Flowers, cell phones, nail polish, TVs, computers, and jewelry. They add pleasure to your life. Those items are bought by choice and personal interest. What defines whether an object is declared a necessity or a want? Does the gender of a buyer for an object affect the tax, non-tax ruling? Tampons are taxed, but females need them to tend to their monthly periods. Taxes should be removed on tampons in every state. They are looked upon too lightly and assumed to be more of a extravagance and less of need. They are the “pink tax”.

My mom is an OBGYN and she sees female patients on a daily basis that revolve around period defects. Patients are suffering from heavy streaming periods and other dysfunctions that are uncomforting. They have to change tampons more frequently than an average person. Changing tampons every hour is inconvenient and costly.  My mom works with women to try and assist them in feeling more comfortable with the unnatural feeling periods and other dysfunctions of being female and save them time and money from buying so many tampons. However seeing a doctor about menstrual issues becomes even more costly when trying to fix your awkward period malfunctions. Women are feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable.

Tampons. They are declared a luxurious item in thirty-eight states of the United States. On holidays, taxes are removed on some everyday items, however, tampons and pads are still taxed on those special occasions. Tampons are still looked upon as a non-essential item, as if they are used by choice. As if women choose to go out and buy a $7 box of wonderful cotton plugs. As if women choose to have periods every month for an average of thirty-six years of their life. As if women choose to spend close to $2,000 on such a “luxurious” item as a small cylindrical object made of cotton. As if women are being spoiled with an item to protect their blood from leaking out. What a treat.

Tampons aren’t flowers. People wouldn’t buy a box of tampons for their friend’s birthday. Tampons are a common piece of feminine hygiene that keep blood from spilling out uncontrollably and make periods a little less worse. Periods are a naturally occurring part of a female’s life that they can’t prevent, not to mention the berserk side effects of mood swings, cramps and cravings. Tampons and pads have to be used to prevent blood from pouring out and leaking everywhere, time after time after time.  Every second you feel uncomfortable blood shedding; every minute you’re hesitant of leaking; every hour you’re contemplating if you need to change tampons; every day you’re in fear of the current of your flow; every week you wonder when it will be done. Periods aren’t a choice. Tampons aren’t a choice. They are a need. Tampons are calculated to be needed for 456 periods, 38 years, and 2,280 days (2015, Kane) of a female’s life. Tampons are a female necessity.  

Although her grade for the entire essay was high, the one critique by her teacher is evidence that we still have some work to do in this country when it comes to education around menstrual health. He penned ” too graphic”.

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The work that needs to be done in developing world countries is even greater.  There is a growing awareness that less stigma around menstruation results in better lives for both boys and girls. Girls that stay in school beyond the age of menstruation because they have access to a private bathroom as well as menstrual pads, also have fewer children and are better able to secure a job to support their family because they have obtained a higher level of education. My involvement with the sewing center at Helping Haiti Work has reinforced what I have seen researched. The need for menstrual protection supplies in schools is recognized, but the thirst from teachers and students for education is even greater. Our Haitian seamstresses have been provided with women’s health training and given charts and pelvic models to use in their educational sessions. For $16 a day they will assist in the distribution of the reusable menstrual pad kits and provide 3-4 hours of education to teachers and students.

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My hope is that a future granddaughter will pen a similar essay to the one above for her ancient history class and use our current experiences as the beginning of the end when it concerns the menstruation taboo.

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Education! Education!

In addition to marketing the Days for Girls reusable menstrual pad kits, our seamstresses have been busy providing education to young women utilizing the Ambassador of Women’s Health teaching that they learned last year. Last week, two of our seamstresses from Ranquite traveled 3 hours to Cap Haitian and then another four hours by motorcycle to Pilette. The program was sponsored by Haiti Marycare and was celebrating young women as part of an empowerment program. The instruction was well received and more events are planned for the future.

Morpheus Concert

We had a fabulous time listening to the Morpheus Band last weekend while also raising money for 2017 microloans and continued funding of the sewing programs. 125 people filled the Hamel Community Center enjoying tunes from Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Almost $6000 was raised that will help Haitian women expand their businesses.

Haiti – When something can go wrong, it will.


Over the course of the past 10 years visiting and working in Haiti, I have learned that even the most straight forward venture will have stumbling blocks. An hour long trip to the beach can be altered when the van breaks down and you bath in your own sweat, rather than the oceans waves, while waiting for the arrival of a new part.  When you ask a patient to get additional testing before surgery and she disappears for 2 days trying to find enough donated money to afford the cost of testing. Thus, when our recent planned trip to deliver 150 menstrual pad kits to Les Cayes, Haiti on the southern coast of the peninsula started to hit a few bumps in the implementation process, I didn’t worry too much. Haitian ingenuity seems to always overcome these minor obstructions, as it is how the country has functioned for so many years. But as the bumps in the road turned into large potholes, my confidence in our ability to pull off the venture waned.

Two of our seamstresses were to depart Cap Haitian for Port au Prince on Monday, a 6 hour bus ride that left at 3 am. They were to be met at the bus station in Port au Prince  by a representative of International Medical Corps and driven the additional 4 hours to Les Cayes. The seamstresses had the additional responsibility of transporting 150 menstrual pad kits and teaching materials that they would need for the 7 hour teaching session on Tuesday for community health workers and nurses working in the areas affected by Hurricane Matthew. Another 150 kits were to be delivered in March if the teaching went well and the health providers thought that the kits would be helpful to women and girls in remote areas. What could go wrong?

  1. The original chaperone for the women needed to back out 5 days before the trip and we scrambled to find a replacement who we trusted and with whom the women were comfortable traveling.
  2. As snaps were being put on the shield component of the kits, we realized that we didn’t have enough snaps to finish the order. Thank goodness for frequent mission trips from Minnesota, as we were able to send a supply with only a few days notice
  3. Despite counting and re-counting the kits, 39 kits (one large bag) were left behind at the sewing center and the loss not discovered until arrival in Les Cayes.
  4. The seamstresses and chaperone had assumed that lodging and food would be provided once they arrived at their destination. The representatives on the arrival end had not been informed of this and no accommodations were available.

The final outcome? 17 Haitian health providers showed up for the information session today and were highly impressed with the knowledge of Irose, the HHW seamstress. She spoke about puberty, reproduction and how the kits should be used to improve health. Some of the participants were interested in purchasing kits for themselves and family members, asking if they could promote the products beyond the distribution of free kits. Everyone agreed that local production of the product was something they wished to promote.

Once again I am reminded of the resilience of the Haitians. Many of us would have given up when only one of the above roadblocks stood in our way. But our seamstresses only saw it as a temporary detour until we were able to get them back on the road. And those missing 39 kits? They were sent on their own bus ride to Port Au Prince and will be waiting for the driver later today when he deposits the seamstresses back at the bus stop in Port.

Don’t forget about our upcoming fundraising event with the band Morpheus playing at the Hamel Community Center on March 4th from 7-9 pm. All proceeds will be used to support our sewing program and the microfinance loans. Ticket information available on our homepage.

Combining Forces to Get the Job Done

Helping Haiti Work delivered 75 Minnesota made menstrual pad kits to SOIL, a Haitian organization that produces fertilizer from human waste. SOIL is working in the area of Haiti that was affected by Hurricane Matthew and was able to distribute the kits to those women in need.
Don’t forget our concert fundraiser on March 4th, featuring the band Morpheus. More info can be found on our homepage

EMPOWERING WOMEN. PERIOD.

All around the world, women and girls face a monthly reality: menstruation. Periods are often taboo, something shameful, to be hidden away and never mentioned. Certainly menstruation is often considered a women-only topic – we ask each other for help if we’re in a tight spot and have forgotten a pad or tampon, we talk in coded language about cramps, irritation, and other inconveniences we tend to bear in silence each month.

It is truly unfortunate that menstruation is still considered a shameful and unacceptable topic in most places. And for many women silence is just one of many challenges they face each month. In countries where access to clean sanitation facilities is already a struggle, having a steady supply of sanitary products can prove difficult, whether for availability or cost reasons. For those of us who have access to supplies it can be easy to overlook the importance of pads, tampons, Diva Cups, whatever we use for menstrual management. But consider what you would do if you couldn’t access those supplies during your monthly period. Would you be able to go to work or school? Leave the house to socialize? Likely not – or you would have to improvise a pad from something around your home, like a rag or old shirt, increasing your risk of infection and likely leaving you feeling vulnerable and insecure about leaving the house.

Luckily, periods are starting to gain attention around the world – whether women in the US and other countries are protesting the “pink tax” or women like Leslee Jaeger are working to develop local and sustainable solutions to provide women with safe, reusable menstrual management supplies. Recently, Leslee co-funded Helping Haiti Work to do just that: provide locally made and affordable menstruation kits and create an economic opportunity along the way. Helping Haiti Work now has two sewing centers around Cap Haitian where woman work to craft reusable sanitary pads and prepare “kits”, which contain a pair of underwear, washable and reusable sanitary pads made from cotton fabric, soap and a sealable bag to store used pads before washing. The kits are designed to look like a cute clutch bag, making them subtle enough to carry around.

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SOIL and partners distribute Haitian-made menstruation kits after Hurricane Matthew.

After Hurricane Matthew devastated southern Haiti, Leslee and her partners at Helping Haiti Work decided they wanted to contribute to emergency response drives, and donated a large number of their menstrual kits to SOIL’s hurricane relief effort.

In December a friend of SOIL’s, local activist and community leader Rea Doll, distributed the kits in Darbouze, a community in southern Haiti that relies heavily on the tourism industry. The impact of Hurricane Matthew in this community will likely be long-lived, as the decrease in tourism means that many families are having to pull children from school to save money and also work to bring in additional income. In the face of these challenges, menstruation presents an even bigger issue for women.

Rea, in collaboration with a local organization called OJED, distributed kits to women throughout Darbouze. Additionally, Rea realized that the kits could provide an opportunity to create jobs in Port-au-Prince and southern Haiti by replicating the work Helping Haiti Work has done in northern Haiti. Rea will be working with Leslee and her partners to further explore the possibility of opening a sewing center in Port-au-Prince (where Rea has space in the school she runs), and distributing kits throughout southern Haiti.

At SOIL, we were honored to be of assistance in connecting Helping Haiti Work’s generous donation to Rea and OJED, and we are so excited to see sustainable and entrepreneurial solutions like Leslee’s growing through new connections and opportunities to serve an ever increasing number of women.

Morpheus Concert 3/4/2017

Saturday, March 4, 2017 at 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM
Hamel Community Center, 3200 Mill St, Medina, MN 55340

You are invited to a concert featuring the band, Morpheus! Rock to music by Blood, Sweat & Tears, Steppenwolf, Santana, Chicago, The Eagles, The Doors and others as the 12-member group performs hits from some of music’s greatest bands.

Admission: $15 in advance. Use this ticket link to make your tax-deductible donation through GiveMN. Refreshments will be available; wine/beer for a $5 cash donation at the event. Bring your friends!

Hamel/Medina Community Center just off Hamel Rd, a half mile west of Hwy MN-55 and Old Rockford Rd. (NOT Medina Ballroom but the Community Center at 3200 Mill Street, Hamel, MN 55340).

The Power of Globalization

While many of my friends were participating in the Women’s March on Saturday, I was proud to be working with a group of seamstresses who were busy demonstrating the power of globalization and how it can be used to benefit others. 30 women and 1 man showed up to construct reusable menstrual pads for distribution to school girls in Haiti, as well as prepping fabric for our Haitian seamstresses to construct the same kits and earn a livable wage. We were our own march for the equality of women throughout the world, signifying that Women’s rights are Human rights. Helping others less fortunate causes all of us to rise; attempting to divide women by country, sexual orientation or race will only make us more resolute and determined.


 

 

My Upcoming Caribbean Vacation – Haiti and Warmth!

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I am sitting in my kitchen in MN this morning contemplating all of the errands that I need to accomplish before I journey to Haiti in 3 days. The current temperature here is -8 with a projected high of 0 degrees. The heat and humidity of Hispaniola (collective term for the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti) is appealing, but this is far from a beach vacation. Our team of 14 will be performing surgery for 5 days as well as participating in a distribution of 114 menstrual pad kits to local school girls. However, the most worthwhile portion of the trip will be connecting with Haitian friends that we have not seen for a year.

In 2006 when I participated in my first surgical mission trip, I thought it was worthwhile, that we helped many people and that I was not going to do this again. It was a checkmark on my bucket list and I could start moving on. I failed in that I have returned 1-2 times a year to the island and my bucket list has only grown longer with fewer checkmarks. Sometimes failure is good.

My understanding of this island nation has increased dramatically since that first trip, while my perception of issues as black and white has changed to various shades of grey. For every beneficial initiative, there can be a downside. Initiating a HIV program in a hospital and hiring additional staff – beneficial. Existing staff now wants to be paid extra to take care of HIV patients because they believe there is additional outside dollars to support this. Bringing toys and new clothes for the orphanage kids that attend a local school – beneficial. More children are abandoned at the orphanage because poor Haitians see orphanage kids having a better life than they can provide. These are only a few of the examples that I have seen over the years.

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Father Charles organized a meeting of all ladies in the microloan program in Ranquite. “I teach them the way to use money, they share their experience, how the microloans service is benefit for them, it helps them to take care their families. It’s was an appointment of brotherhood.”

Our current microfinance program that lends women money for growth of their small business (Helping Haiti Work) is not without concerns. I do not live in Haiti and administer this program, so I have to rely on others to be truthful about distribution of the funds and respectful coaching of the recipients. The other arm of this program involves employing Haitian seamstresses to construct reusable menstrual pad kits for sale in the community. The average Haitian woman who needs this product is not able to pay enough to cover the cost of supplies/wage to seamstress. Do we distribute the kits for free and continue to depend on donations to subsidize the program? Or do we focus on selling to NGOs that have more funds and can cover our costs?

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Seamstresses assembling 300 menstrual pad kits

While these competing interests are playing tug of war in my head, I am gratified to report that we finished 2016 by granting 25 new loans and started 2017 by filling an order for 300 menstrual pad kits that will be distributed to school girls near Gonaives. Sometimes it is more important to think like a Haitian – appreciate today and don’t worry so much about tomorrow. That means I need to try to appreciate this cold MN weather while trying to finish all my errands today.

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Haitian women are depending on us

img_20161106_151833These 15 women are the most recent microloan recipients in Ranquite. Our ambassador, Father Charles, spent half a day teaching them about the loan repayment system and how they could use the money to grow their businesses. He has become so busy working with our program that he is setting aside a separate room to receive the women when they make their payments.

Another 15 women are waiting for their loans. With the help of Give to the Max Day, we are confident that we will have enough funds to get more women started in this program. Please consider making a donation that can work to improve the lives of so many women who live on the margins of Haitian society.