About the Author: Megan Larson-Kone is the Regional Refugee Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda.
Sometimes the smallest changes make the biggest difference. In Uganda, young women are often hindered from pursuing a secondary education by a lack of basic supplies. This is particularly true for refugee girls and women. Of the 140,000 refugees hosted by Uganda -- primarily from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Sudan -- approximately half are women and girls. When menstruating, the vast majority do not have access to the sanitary materials necessary to easily continue their education or other daily tasks. For girls hoping to pursue secondary education, this is a particular problem, and they often miss one week of school each month because they lack the materials to cope with their periods with dignity.
Enter Makapads -- a microenterprise established by Makerere University Professor of Engineering Moses Kizza Musaazi in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Makapads stands for Menstruation -- Administration -- Knowledge -- Affordability. It produces sanitary napkins using paper made from recycled office paper and papyrus fibers. The process uses manual labor with solar-powered heat sealers, and an ultraviolet sterilization unit. Makapads can produce about 3,000 sanitary napkins per day, but could do more if they had access to more recycled paper. Embassy Kampala's Greening Diplomacy Taskforce teamed with UNHCR to help provide this raw material that allows Makapads to run. Each month, shredded, unclassified office paper is delivered to the Makapads factory in Kyaka II refugee settlement in western Uganda via UNHCR. The Makapads staff mixes this paper with pounded papyrus fibers to create absorbent material that is assembled into sanitary napkins.
The benefits of this collaboration go far beyond environmental friendliness: this program helps ensure a better life for refugee women and girls, with fewer constraints on their ability to continue their daily activities. UNHCR purchases the Makapads to distribute in sanitary kits every quarter. To date, they provide half the female population with Makapads products (the remainder receives the traditional cloth strips as part of their sanitary kit). As soon as Makapads can make more, they will cover the remaining half. Refugee families often have little-to-no ability to earn income, so they are unable to purchase these items for themselves. Makapads has the potential to expand across the region, benefitting countless other girls and women, because Makapads cost half the price of imported sanitary napkins.
Additionally, Makapads is run by, and employs, refugee staff: out of 35 employees, 30 are refugee women -- mostly single or female heads of household. These staffers earn the equivalent of $30-$60 per month -- an income level they would not have dreamed of before working with Makapads. This income helps them to support their families and send their own daughters to school.
The Embassy's involvement with the project started when its Greening Diplomacy Taskforce was looking for a way to recycle the Mission's waste office paper and reduce their carbon footprint, but it ended up having a far greater impact. A small effort by the Mission helps create far deeper social, educational, and economic rewards for the refugee community living in Uganda.
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