Dr Rosa Matheson from the Friends of Angel's Orphanage charity has written a column describing the organisation's education and support work, and the delivery of menstruation and hygiene provisions (Freedom Kit Bags) out in Nepal for women and girls.
By Dr Rosa Matheson
“Please help our women – they are sick.”
These words brought a whole new dimension into our already challenging lives.
I am Dr Rosa Matheson, and along with my husband, previous local GP, Dr Ian Matheson and Trustee, Brian Mildenhall. We were standing in a remote, struggling, earthquake ravaged village in 2015, talking with Kamal, the local Nepalese Social Worker who was in charge of the building work.
We were there to check on the three houses our charity - The Book Project – had sponsored for widowed or disabled women.
“How are they sick?” I asked the scoial worker. He put his hand between his legs and said – “They are sick here. They are always sick there once they have started their periods. Our men get sick too, and we have only few babies coming.”
This was not the first time we had been challenged by Nepal. Why, how, were we there anyway you may ask?
It all started in early 2009. Our son, who was then a Final Year Medical Student at St Georges Hospital, London, had set up a Medical Project to take Medical Clinics to the hill villages of Nepal. His experience in the British Army, and a life-changing moment in Kosovo, had given him an insight into Crisis-and- Conflict Medicine.
At that time Nepal was at the tail end of such a situation. All going from the UK – medical students, nurses, and qualified doctors, were going as volunteers, everyone paying their own way. At the eleventh hour one of the doctors could not go. One Sunday afternoon we got a phone call. It was James.
“Dad,” he said. “How do you fancy coming to Nepal?”
He then explained he was a qualified doctor short and the project was in jeopardy of having to be greatly reduced. What could Ian say, but – “Yes, O.K.” I said, “If you’re going, I’m going too”, so we both went in March 2009. He did Medical Clinics, I did the Glasses ones!
We went to two remote, high, unbelievably poor, hill villages (most of Nepal’s ‘Hills’ are higher and more demanding than a lot of ‘mountains’!). In one village, Dirali, we arrived in pitch black night-time, in the middle of a disaster-movie style thunder-and-lightening storm.
No sooner had we parked up than there appeared huddles of people -some being carried on people’s backs, some being held up by their arms. They came seeking help. Several of these people had been struck down by lightning (lightning kills a lot of rural people in Nepal) and the other villagers were bringing them for treatment – word had already gone out about the Medical Clinics. It was like a scene out of MASH (the American TV series.)
Back in Kathmandu James took us to a small orphanage, where the children needed medical attention. Ian had been a paediatrician before being a GP. We found 23 children in a very poor state, physically and house-wise.
We did what we could at the time, and came back home, told family and friends and suddenly found we had adopted an orphanage. We have totally - with the help of kindly supporters – ‘Friends of Angels Orphanage’ - looked after and cared for these children for almost 14 wonderful, demanding, rewarding years now.
So, when Kamal threw his appeal at us, out of the blue, we were surprised, but not abashed.
Back in Kathmandu we met a Nepalese woman – Beni Rani Ghale - who was making ‘pads’ for girls at the small school in her village. Lack of period protection means girls have an interrupted education at best, or, sadly and more commonly, drop out of education completely.
We looked at Beni’s kit. It really was inadequate for getting a woman through her monthly menstruation. We helped to add lots to it, make different sizes, S/M/L, and came up with a name – Freedom Kit Bags.
From the feedback we received from 100s of women and girls, we then modified it five times. Many girls and women describe it as ‘the best gift in the world’ or ‘the best gift I will ever have’. The Kit Bags are about more than just ‘periods’.
What is this ‘Kit’ that brings women comfort, cleanliness, and dignity, better health, freedom of movement and empowerment?
Inside, there are 3 pad-holders /12 2-layer pads /6 inserts /3 panties (the first they will have ever worn - which tends to excite much giggling) a pretty carry purse for a change of pads/panties /a water proof bag for putting the used ones in/ soap bag and soap/ a washing line and pegs (these are rare in villages where washing is dried on bushes, grass or roofs of houses- very unhygienic) and a big colourful bag made from recycled-saris to keep it all safely together.
This Kit, with care, lasts for 3+ years.
At our very first distribution talking with men, boys, women and girls under a tree at Kodari, (a village we had helped a lot after the earthquake), we were really challenged. Talking through an interpreter I spoke about when I had periods, and of my three daughters’ experiences. Mouths opened. Jaws dropped. Wide eyes looked shocked.
“What is the matter?” I asked the interpreter.
“You have periods?” she asked. “White women have periods?” She was incredulous.
Now it was our turn to look shocked and wide-eyed. This changed our whole programme from just making and distributing the Kit Bags with instructions on how to use and care for them, to one that now includes Sexual and Menstrual Health facts and Hygiene Education as well. If you don’t get the Education – you don’t get a Kit Bag - it is that important.
The ‘myth busting’ education/instruction is delivered via ‘flash cards’ by our Ambassadors. At the moment we have two incredible young women who are full-time – but also have men and boys who come to help when needed.
The FKBs are made by women in our sewing rooms, the provide meaningful employment and income. We work with many organisations and groups including Women’s Groups, Lions/Rotary Clubs, hospitals, schools, police, Scouts, orphanages and sanctuaries.
We work across the whole of Nepal and with all tribes -e specially the marginalised. We work with, and deliver to, women and girls, and men and boys. Without men and boys onboard little will change for the women in respect of the cultural oppression linked to the ‘myths’ that menstruation is shameful, a ‘curse’, and dangerous to men, cattle and plants. We find most men are willing to listen and learn if we can reach them.
We are proud to say that we have now distributed 17,000+ Freedom Kit Bags to women and girls, free-of-charge. That equate to 663,000 Periods or 2,983,500 ‘Days of Dignity’ .
However, we say ‘If you help the woman you help the family', and if you help the family, you help their community – and that means many more thousands have been helped too.
FKBs cost £25 meaning only 64p per period, or 3p a change of pad. They are more economical than disposables and will save Nepal from pad pollution – a horrible reality. Freedom Kit Bags help protect their environment and our Planet. A win/win!
We ask that those reading who can spare some money donate £25 and buy a bag and change the life of a woman – her family – and her community.
You could also donate one for Valentine’s Day to show your regard and respect for the women of Nepal. The Freedom Kit Bag Paypal account can be found at https://www.paypal.com/uk/fundraiser/charity/3617787