Written for the Olin Blog by Caroline Suppiger, BSBA ’20, with contributions from Daun Lee, LA ’20, and a video by Lucie Kirk, LA ’20. All are participants in the Madagascar Sustainability Initiative, an Olin class that is a joint educational project between Olin Business School and the Missouri Botanical Garden. One of the initiative’s programs, Project Period, creates panties and a sustainable source of menstrual supplies for women and girls entering puberty.
The women involved in Project Period recently participated in a regional “Art Fair” (see below) to sell panties and baskets. In addition, they gave a pair of the panties to Madagascar’s minister of arts (female) as a promotional gift. They are making the period panties and are thinking ahead about International Women’s Day festivities held every year in March. The panties should help to reduce infections and the need for a charcoal crop to pay for medicines.
My project was the third iteration of Project Period, a program first developed by students a few years ago. In the past, groups combatted the lack of feminine hygiene products available to women by creating underwear using local material, including a cloth pad filled with local moss and bark. Expanding on this prior project, our group focused on female empowerment as a whole, contributing in three distinct ways: economic support, education, and self-empowerment.
Once we arrived in Mahabo, Madagascar, our group discovered that the previously made underwear was too large for young girls going through puberty. We developed an additional smaller size of underwear to support adolescent girls as they experience and learn about their changing bodies.
We applied for a grant to bring two hand-powered sewing machines to Mahabo. These machines help women make underwear more quickly, thus providing increased economic support and allowing more women to experience the benefits of this local product.
As part of our economic aim, we wanted to help women create a self-sustaining business resulting in a source of revenue. To do this, we priced the underwear, designed a sign, and taught the women how and where to sell the underwear. In just one week, we sold five pairs of underwear.
While in Mahabo, we provided a series of classes for women, young girls, and young boys in the community. We taught basic sexual education including: proper hygiene, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, puberty, and basic anatomy.
“In addition, we created a song, which outlined the purpose of our project and the importance of period panties, that the same middle school female students performed at big events, like the big presentation we gave to Mahabo and other involved parties,” Lee said.
The last part of our project focused on the Girls’ Club, an established group within the community made up of girls ranging from 12 to 16 years old. In order to encourage empowerment and self-confidence, we gave each girl a flip camera for approximately an hour a day to document parts of their lives.
We asked questions like, “Who is your mentor?” and “What is your favorite subject in school?” Because this village was such a male dominated community, we wanted to give the girls something of their own that they are proud of. At the end of our time, a team member compiled the videos and we showed the girls their video. There were laughs and tears because this was the first time any of them had even seen a photo of themselves.
We also taught the young girls a song and dance to help market the underwear at local events like soccer games and markets.
In what ways did it go as you expected—and in what ways didn’t it?
A few days in to our trip, after working with the women and girls of the village, we found out that the underwear made in the past was way too big for the younger girls who were one of our main focuses of the trip. Because of this discovery, we had to completely change our plans and redesignate our funds, designing two pairs of underwear instead of one.
“It was a success for the most part, because we were able to produce quite a few new sizes and we were even able to sell them at the Saturday market,” Lee said. “We found out that the mothers rarely buy the panties because they would rather spend the money on their daughters, so we were selling the smaller panties in hopes that the mothers would buy them for their daughters and then buy some for themselves.”
Going into the trip, I thought that our plans were a bit ambitious because we had so much to do, but fortunately, with the help of the Mahabo community, we were able to complete everything we had planned and more.
What were your biggest takeaways?
My biggest takeaway from the project itself is how amazing the women in the Mahabo community are. They were more than willing to answer our questions and come to meet with us day in and day out. There was a woman in the community, Madam Julienne, who volunteered to teach 40 women how to use the sewing machines for several hours a day throughout our time in the village. I was inspired by the women’s deep affection and care for both their own families and the well-being of the community as a whole.
After almost a month in Madagascar, it was evident how resilient the Malagasy people are. They are extremely big-hearted and work incredibly hard to support their families and greater community.
“While we thoroughly planned out our projects at school, actually going to the site and speaking to the Malagasy people and the women of Project Period made me realize that their inputs are a lot more important and useful than sticking to our timeline,” Lee said.
How has this class/project/experience contributed to your long-term goals—career or otherwise?
I think this class has contributed to my long-term goals by showing me the importance of an impact-driven job. As cliché as it sounds, this trip further demonstrated to me that I value impacting lives in a positive way through my personal and professional endeavors.
The Madagascar Sustainability Initiative is a class available to both undergraduates (UB B53 MGT 401M) and graduate students (B63 MGT 501 03). Pictured above: Xavier Bravo, LA ’19; Nick Murira, BSBA ’19; Caroline Suppiger, BSBA ’20; Lucie Kirk, LA ’20; Daun Lee, LA ’20; and Jonno Schneider, BSBA ’20.