A Q&A with Eric Omondi, Founder of ASHWA
Part of our service mapping is swapping stories with other incredible groups doing good work in our field. Our Chief Operating Officer sat down with Eric Omondi over African masala tea, to discuss his fantastic and innovative initiative in southern Uganda!
Megan Beck (MB): How did a young, single man become a regional innovator for women’s reproductive health?
Eric Omondi (EO): After my Red Cross engagements in West Nile, I moved back to Busia, my home district in Uganda. My mother, the Secretary for Women Affairs in the Local Council, frequently received village women in our home, who reported to her about domestic challenges. They came in crying, or looking sad and angry. That is how I learned that they were often beaten by their husbands for using food money to buy sanitary pads. Ultimately, menstruation is an issue that most men in my village don't discuss at all.
MB: This became quite the family affair; how did your family influence the formation of the Alliance of Sustainable Health and Wealth in Africa (ASHWA)?
EO: After realizing that menstruation was a big problem in my neighbourhood, I decided to fundraise and buy pads for women and their daughters, so that they would not get beaten. Months later, I got the idea to make reusable sanitary pads, since they would be cheap and easy to make by the village women. I spent days researching patterns, materials and training notes.
Eventually, I organized my first class, and registered one participant: my mum. After trial and error, we both made samples of reusable sanitary pads. My mum asked my sisters to use the samples we had made and give us feedback on their performance. Now women meet every Thursday to teach others in the community how to make their own pads!
MB: Creating a lasting impact requires significant upfront costs before donors can even join the cause. How did you start?
EO: Initially, I paid for materials and donated my old t-shirts to make the pads. Over time however, I ran out of old clothing and politely asked the women to bring their old cloths, but their supplies didn't last long either.
Living in a village, I couldn't access electricity for my laptop. I walked 9 km to and from Busia to charge my laptop at a friend's place, do my paperwork, and then go back home. At this time, I could not afford to repair my broken bicycle and sometimes depended on rides from good Samaritans.
MB: How do you encourage women to maintain this model? To find sewing sources?
EO: During our trainings, we bring materials that are locally available within our home as well as the local markets. We buy second-hand cotton bedsheets, fleece materials, and towels during market days.
MB: It seems you’re not content meeting the needs of women and girls in your hometown. How did you begin working with refugees in Northern Uganda, the geographically opposite part of Uganda from where you began?
EO: When I found out how big the gap is in addressing menstruation in the BidiBidi refugee settlement, I partnered with another agency to train 130 refugees in Kimba zone. Myself and two trainers spent three days on the education and instruction pilot.
One of the key lessons we learnt from our pilot was that men in refugee populations are quite willing to join trainings on menstrual health management. Ten participants of the pilot were men, and their reasons for attending the training were touching. Most of the men said they attended to learn, and in turn go teach their wives and other female friends how to make their reusable pads.
MB: It’s difficult to talk about vaginas without also talking about sex. What is ASHWA’s stance on reproductive versus sexual education?
EO: I think menstrual health management and sex education are linked. When discussing menstrual health management we have to talk about reproductive health and sometimes you can't control questions participants have about sex education. In one of the trainings we had, a young girl asked: Is it true that when I have sex during my period with a condom I can't get pregnant?. As a trainer you can't avoid responding to this question without telling her about safe sex. So I strongly think they are linked, but we try to avoid talking about sex as much as we can since in Uganda, sex education is banned by the government (1).
MB: In Busia, are all girls now having their monthly product needs met?
EO: Girls in Busia still struggle to buy disposable sanitary pads. Often, they rely on bodaboda men (motorbike drivers for hire), male peers and male teachers to buy these pads for them. This has caused many girls to fall victim to survival sex. Some have also resorted to commercial sex work, especially in the slums of Busia municipality and amongst the student population, where they have sex with men in exchange for money.
Currently, Busia district is among the leading districts in Uganda regarding teenage pregnancies, at a rate of approximately 28% (2). With these increasing rates, multitudes of unsafe abortions put these young girls at risk.
MB: What are the biggest needs for your community, considered the “host” community, and the refugee community?
EO: There is a high demand for changing facilities and handwashing stations. Latrines are not only unhygienic, but mostly shared by both males and females. Women and girls need a place to change their pads in privacy, and wash the blood from their fingers.
Eric Omondi is the Founder of the Alliance for Sustainable Health and Wealth in Africa (ASHWA), a community-based organization addressing menstrual hygiene management. His largest focus is on increased attendance and retention in school to drive social change.