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In Hanover, volunteers make washable feminine hygiene pads for girls in West Africa

  • Vivian Caine, 15, of Hanover, attaches plastic snaps to menstrual pads in an assembly line of volunteers from Youth In Action making the pads at the home of Inger Kwaku, one of the organization's board members, to be sent to girls in Ghana in Hanover, Monday, May 20, 2019. The group has completed about 200 of them and are aiming for between 500 and 600. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Inger Kwaku, middle, her daughter Geneva, left, and volunteer Emilee Lenning, 18, of Hanover, right, assemble washable menstrual pads to be donated to girls in Ghana at the Kwaku home in Hanover, N.H., Monday, May 20, 2019. The grandmother of Kevin Kwaku, left, was a pioneer for women's rights in Ghana, and the family will travel to the country this summer and deliver the pads. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kevin Kwaku poses with his grandmother Rebecca Agroh in a family photograph. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Kwaku family, of Hanover, and the student volunteer organization Youth In Action, are aiming to finish up to 600 washable menstrual pads to deliver to girls in Ghana this summer. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Sunday, June 02, 2019

HANOVER — Once every few weeks this spring, Inger Kwaku’s dinner table has become an assembly line. There’s a sewing machine at either end of the table. Flannel printed with koalas, sock monkeys and tie-dye patterns sits in neat, rectangular piles next to squares of quilt batting and waterproof material.

Geneva Kwaku, a senior at Hanover High School, traces the hourglass outline of a sanitary, washable pad onto the fabric and waterproof material before handing it off to her mom or classmate to be sewn. Once the pad is sewn, another classmate snaps on buttons to either side of the pad; the snaps will keep the pad in place when it’s worn.

By the end of the afternoon, they’ll have finished making about 40 washable pads.

The goal is to have about 600 washable pads by the beginning of August to give to about 100 girls in Have, Ghana, which is in the southeastern part of the West African country.

That’s when the Kwakus will travel to Ghana to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the death of Kevin Kwaku’s grandmother, Rebecca Agroh. Kevin Kwaku, a cardiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, is half-Ghanaian and half-Canadian.

His grandmother, Agroh, dedicated her career to the empowerment and education of women throughout Ghana.

“I thought (this) would be a wonderful way to honor his grandma,” Inger Kwaku said. For the past few years, the Kwakus have donated money to help the nonprofit established in Agroh’s honor buy disposable sanitary pads and educate girls about menstruation.

After reading an article about sustainability and pads, Inger Kwaku “put two and two together. We’re going to Africa. How about we bring some pads with us?”

Inger Kwaku then brought the project to Youth in Action, a community service organization at Hanover High, and several high school students have joined in the sewing.

She said each pad costs a little less than $2 and takes 30 minutes to make, and can be used for up to five years. Even her mother, who lives in Australia, has gotten involved with the project, sewing three pads a day.

Inger Kwaku found inspiration for the pads from a number of sources, including the Friends of Buburi nonprofit in Kenya.

There are other efforts to get washable pads to girls and young women. Afripads, for example, is a Ugandan company that sells reusable pads in various African countries.

A United Nations report estimates that one in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during her menstrual cycle. That means girls can miss up to a week of school each month.

“As a woman, we can all imagine how difficult it would be if we didn’t have any products,” Inger Kwaku said. “And that it would impact you in such a way that you’re not going to get the same level of education as your male counterparts.”

But even if disposable pads are available, 11.5 million women in Ghana lack adequate hygiene or sanitation management facilities, according to the World Bank.

The pads the Kwakus are sewing can be folded into little squares and then carried in a waterproof bag once they’ve been used. After each use, the pads are washed and hang-dried.

The conversation around access to feminine hygiene products has also hit closer to home.

Earlier in May, New Hampshire state lawmakers passed a bill requiring all middle schools and high schools in the state provide free menstrual products in gender neutral and women’s bathrooms.

At Hanover High, for example, the HHS Feminism Club has placed baskets with free pads and tampons in restrooms.

As the cutting, sewing and snapping continued at the dinner table, Beth Kopp, who directs the Youth-In-Action community service organization at Hanover High, points to some of the finished pads on the table. One pad has giraffes on it.

“Isn’t it part of the adorableness of these, because of the stigma?” she said. “It’s not supposed to be shameful. Make it cute!”

That’s one of the goals of the Rebecca Agroh Memorial Foundation: Reduce the stigma around periods. Inger Kwaku remembers a picture she saw of men handing out feminine hygiene products.

“I said, ‘Why would they do that?’ ” she recalled. “They explained to me, they want it to come from men to show that this is natural. It’s time to talk about it.”

For Geneva Kwaku, 18, sewing these reusable pads has been a way to connect with her great-grandmother’s legacy, who she met once when she was 6.

“She was such a political activist — very inspiring,” Geneva Kwaku said.

Agroh was a social worker, starting her career in the 1950s. She had earned a master’s degree in social work from Connecticut College in New London, Conn., making her one of the first women in Ghana to have a master’s degree. She traveled across Ghana to teach women, particularly in more rural areas of the country, and she established a home economics school, teaching women how to sew dresses and how to cook in a restaurant setting. Later on, she did consulting for the United Nations Development Program.

“In such a country that is so male-dominated, and where women really did not have ready access to education, she realized very early on that was what would have hampered their independence,” said Kevin Kwaku, her grandson.

Nowadays, the foundation, established by her son Ken Kwaku, has an information, communications and technology school to train women in computer skills.

While Kevin Kwaku remembers Agroh as a tender and attentive grandmother, sneaking him his favorite snack — Vienna sausages — from the kitchen, he says she was someone who commanded respect.

“When she walked into a room, people sat up a little straighter,” he said.

While she was modest about the work she had done, the way Agroh approached her work continues to influence her family.

“I think another thing that I’ve kind of learned from my parents, or that my dad has learned from his dad and learned from his mother, is that you can do a lot with a little,” Geneva Kwaku said.

Daniela Vidal Allee can be reached at dallee@vnews.com.