Mission to provide sanitary products will keep African girls in school

by - 5th September 2014

FRANCIS GARDOM is known for being a traditionalist, Anglo-Catholic priest of a type that has become a rare bird within the Church of England, most having gone to Rome or elsewhere.

Less is known about the risks he takes on the streets of south London, where he has been working as a street pastor through the nights for 10 years, not always being thanked by the intoxicated, vulnerable people he helps home or to hospital after finding them vomiting and legless on the street in the small hours. He also teaches English as a foreign language and continues to serve as honorary curate at his church in Lewisham.

At an age when most would surely be thinking of hanging up the alb - he was born in 1934 - he is in fact fronting the foundation of a new charity that could bring relief to hundreds, even thousands of young women and teenage girls in Africa.

At present, when many of the more economically disadvantaged women in countries such as Kenya and Zambia have their period, they have no access to the sanitary products that their sisters around the world take for granted. For those still at school, they are likely to be kept at home for four days, which research has shown can add up over a year to losing up to 13 per cent of their school year. At home, leaves, rags or other products will be used. Infections are not uncommon.

New charity

Father Gardom is in the process of setting up a new charity, Stamens (Sanitary Towels and Menstruation), to raise funds to buy the products these women need. He hopes it will be launched by Christmas, after the legal and financial hoops have been jumped through. The modest aim, of raising £5,000 a year to start with, has the potential to clear a path to complete the schooling for hundreds upon hundreds of women. He is starting with a project in Kenya that he already helps personally by giving small monthly donations.

The idea grew up in Zambia, where a pastor working in a women’s prison realised that this was one of the worst aspects of the incarceration for the inmates, many in jail with their children, who also had somehow to be fed.

Success

At last year’s meeting of Gafcon, the Global Anglican Future Conference, in Nairobi he was introduced to Margaret Mercy Onyango, and Stamens will work with her society, Margaret Mercy Ministries. This organisation specialises in helping children who cannot go to school because of poverty. A pilot project that has resulted in all the girls in one school continuing their education without interruption simply by supplying them with sanitary towels has been judged a resounding success. Its supporters would now like to extend this provision far more widely, not just in Rarieda district in Bondo, which is in Siaya County in Kenya, but also into other parts of the county, and eventually to other African countries.

The aim of Stamens is not to replace but complement similar projects already funded, for example, by Rotary. Stamens will seek out the projects that are too small to attract the help of the bigger organisations.

The set-up is simple. The sanitary towels are purchased in Africa and are delivered to the mission to be handed out to those who need them. The possibility of setting up a small industry to manufacture them is being looked into.

Father Gardom told Lapido: ‘If the students do not have the provision they do not go to school or they use alternatives like grass or ash and that can cause infections. Not going to school is a tragedy for them. This has the potential to transform the educational prospects for these young girls. Yet it is surprising how many people do not imagine this could be a problem at all. I am very excited about it. It is something practical, which serves a particular purpose, and will not cost an arm and a leg.’

Procter and Gamble is among those already doing some similar work in the field, on a much larger scale. A spokesman said: ‘We are already very active in this area and have been for some time with work we do on our feminine care brands, Always and Tampax, in partnership with NGOs in the region. It started with a program called Protecting Futures in 2007.

The program is dedicated to helping vulnerable girls stay in school and realise their full potential through continued education. This program also works to raise awareness and build advocacy for a little known issue: that lack of access to sanitary protection and sanitary facilities can have a significant impact on girls' education. Over the first four years, Protecting Futures aimed to reach one million vulnerable girls through puberty education and the installation of 500 sanitary facilities with an overall commitment of up to $15m from P&G brands Tampax and Always and their partners.’

Empowering women

This has also been extended to a partnership between the Always brand and UNESCO. Through this, every time a UNESCO marked Always pack is purchased, Always will donate a lesson to a girl in Senegal. ‘It’s all part of our campaign to help empower women around the world. In partnership with UNESCO, we’ve been supporting a literacy programme in Senegal for the past two years. It began in France, and this year we’re extending it to other countries across Europe, including the UK,’ he said.

‘In the UK we’re planning to donate more than seven million lessons to support girls’ education. So far 3,000 girls have improved their literacy and numeracy skills through traditional and online classes. It’s been so successful that another 3,000 are already looking to enrol.’

Father Gardom is also hoping to seek advice from the Mothers’ Union, possibly using the organisation’s grass roots networks to find out where help from the big players is not reaching. The Mothers’ Union told Lapido: ‘We wish Francis and the Stamens project every success in the future.’

Click here to find out more about Stamens