When Sue Barnes opened a letter from her daughter’s school, she didn’t anticipate the incredible journey she was about to embark upon based on the simple request: ‘Please donate sanitary pads’. But it was this heartfelt cry for assistance in 2010 that prompted the KwaZulu-Natal resident to design and manufacture one of the country’s first reusable sanitary pads as a way to restore dignity to every young woman.
“When I read the letter from an NPO asking for assistance, I started to make enquiries,” recalled Barnes, an award-winning philanthropist. “What I found out shocked me. Marginalised schoolgirls in rural areas were missing a week of school every month because they didn’t have access to sanitary pads. As a mother of two dyslexic daughters, I considered the impact this absence would have on their education. There is just no way they would catch up the missed work.”
Creating Subz Pants and Pads
Having studied fashion design, and with years of experience within the clothing industry, Barnes had the expertise to create a product that offered a sustainable solution. Drawing on her knowledge of materials, she designed three prototypes, searching for a product that would match the absorption ability of a disposable sanitary pad with reusable qualities.
“The first prototype was a panty with built-in pad but it was too bulky and messy,” explained Barnes. “I refined the design so that it was a panty with clip-on pads. Easy to use and comfortable to wear.”
After eight months she perfected the final product – Subz Pants and Pads – washable pads and panties that can be reused for up to five years. The panty is made from 100% cotton, and the pads are made from five layers of specialised, absorption-tested fabric. Between 1 000 and 3 000 packs are now manufactured in Durban monthly.
Barnes believed reusable sanitary pads were the only real solution to address the educational and emotional impact a lack of sanitary wear was having on impoverished young women. The financial savings, when compared with the disposable counterpart, is considerable, amounting to thousands of rands. The environmental benefits are also beyond compare. With the recent release of the UN Climate Report outlining the dire realities of climate change, sustainable products are not only a preferred option, they are now essential.
The start of Project Dignity
Because the creation of Subz Pants and Pads was always intended to meet the needs of disadvantaged young women, Barnes established the NPO extension, Project Dignity, in 2014. Through corporate and individual sponsorship, Project Dignity’s ambassadors are able to go into schools across the country and distribute these welcome products to worthy youngsters.
“When we started distributing, we quickly realised that this needed to be more than just arriving at a school and handing out the products with a list of instructions,” recalled Barnes. “There are many cultural reservations when it comes to menstruation and physical development, so we decided to establish an educational programme that addressed this in a fun, interactive way.”
The Project Dignity ambassadors have an extensive database of schools and NPOs requiring donations of Subz packs. As sponsorship arrives, they head to the schools where they address the young women, engaging them in meaningful discussion, after which the Subz packs are distributed.
“The reaction from these young women is always incredible,” said Barnes. “I remember one occasion, I was working at the Sustainability Show, and a young girl – who was a recipient of the pads a while back – approached me and explained how she was able to finish school and study to be a paramedic because of the donation. We are able to assist girls and allow them to live their dreams with dignity and a smile on their faces. It’s incredible.”
Overcoming the Challenges
With any new product that veers from the ‘tried-and-tested’, there are concerns. When it comes to reusable sanitary pads, Barnes said the first question always centred on the cleaning of the pads: “At first, people are concerned about touching menstrual blood, but when we point out that they wash their underwear anyway, they realise this is no difference.”
There is also a lack of support from government level. “We receive no funding or assistance in the distribution of packs, and this is our biggest hurdle. It’s possibly a lack of long-term vision. While reusable pads cost more initially, the savings are substantial.”
Logistically the reusable packs work in well with the high school structure because the five-year longevity of the product means that a girl entering Grade 8 will be able to use the same Subz pack throughout high school. There is no need for monthly school visits for donations, or massive storage space on school premises to hold all the products.
“We are definitely making inroads,” commented Barnes. “To date we’ve distributed in the region of 140 000 packs nationwide, but the demand is increasing. I’m not sure if it’s that we’re more well-known or the population growth, but our list of requests keeps going. We really need corporate sponsors to come on board so we can empower these young girls. The impact on their personal lives and education is beyond measure, and if we’re going to address the gaps in society in some tangible way, then this is a really effective option.”
How to Get Involved
There are so many ways to support Project Dignity, either once-off or on a recurring basis:
• Adopt a school and sponsor annual distributions to Grade 8s (or higher grades).
• Project Dignity can be selected as a CSI project.
• Funds can be directly donated at www.subzpads.co.za
• Schools can ‘adopt’ disadvantaged sister schools and fundraise.
• Select Project Dignity as a recipient for the MySchool card.
• Sign up for a monthly debit order donation.
• Santa Shoebox donation of Subz Pants and Pads.
• Project Dignity is a chosen CSI recipient of Litres for Education and, at selected petrol stations, a percentage per litre of petrol is donated to the NPO at no cost to the consumer.
• Organise a golf day – or other – fundraiser for Project Dignity.