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Reproductive Health and Menstrual Hygiene Management Education and Services to Adolescent Girls in Itombwe.

SAFECO aims to conduct reproductive health education and distribute reusable feminine hygiene kits to adolescent school girls in east Congo.

Photo of Neema Namadamu
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What specific problem(s) are you trying to address?

In Itombwe, an isolated, mountainous area of eastern Congo, child marriage and childbearing destroys life’s potential for thousands of adolescent women. Education is the key to self-determination, and influencing a patriarchal culture that considers reproductive health education and its discussion taboo. Adolescent girls miss 3-5 days of education every month due to a lack of sanitary hygiene products during their menstrual cycle. They fall behind in their studies, drop out of school and consequently end up being married off to older men in exchange for a dowry for the girl’s family, caught in a paradigm of ignorance and cultural slavery. These cultural drivers are a major component in the loss of Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights.

What are some of your unanswered questions about the problem(s) you are working to address?

The first unanswered question is the lack of available product and financial capability for adolescent girls and their families to buy a feminine hygiene kit for their monthly periods. The long term armed conflicts in the area have been the cause of household poverty and displacement of many village communities. The second unanswered question deals with the patriarchal culture that is resistant to discussion and or education about women’s reproductive rights.

Explain Your Idea

SAFECO has a women's center in Itombwe. Due to the extreme isolation of the area, and the poverty of its people, there are no menstrual hygiene products available to adolescent girls. Consequently when a girl begins menstruation she also begins to miss days of school each month and eventually falls behind in her studies. The father determines she is now a woman and shops her for a wedding dowry. Adolescent girls are being married at 14-15 years of age. The simple fact that there is no health education or available menstrual products is the cause of the high percentage of dropouts and early marriage for adolescent girls. We partner with a U.S. organization called Days for Girls (Uganda), that has designed a washable, reusable feminine hygiene kit. Three of our Girl Ambassador mentees were instructed in Kampala on how to construct and market the kit. We now make and market the DfG Kits out of our Center in Itombwe. Our Girl Ambassadors program is a mentoring program for university-aged girls, to raise up the next generation of Maman Shujaa, or Hero Women. We train these girls in UNSCR 1325 & 1820, the Congolese Constitution and Family Code regarding women's rights and family planning. The girls go into rural communities and dramatize these principles through skits and literacy training. Our proposal is to combine these two programs to further sensitize the communities about feminine hygiene and women's rights, and distribute the Stay in School kits to girls.

Name the three most important ways that your idea will address your identified problem(s).

1. By acquiring the resources to purchase material and sew washable, reusable feminine hygiene kits to be distributed to adolescent girls on a regular basis, free of charge. 2. By providing in each feminine hygiene kit, literature that addresses the problems, the cause and the solutions regarding women’s rights and sexual education. 3. By supporting and expanding Our Girl Ambassadors program, a mentoring program for university-aged girls, to raise up the next generation of Maman Shujaa, or Hero Women.

How is your idea unique?

Offering a solution for a girl's monthly period and its subsequent effect on school attendance is unique to this area - there are no other solutions and no other organizations working on this problem in this area. Secondly, the fact that we are a women-led organization with women implementers, is unique to this area. SAFECO has the largest NGO presence in the region, and the only office with solar energy and satellite internet. SAFECO is a known women's organization providing women-centric solutions. Having been an accepted presence in this remote locale for years, SAFECO is a known partner to the surrounding communities and organizations in the area.

What are some outstanding concerns or questions that you have regarding your idea?

The patriarchal culture is heavy in this area. It is oppressive to women and girls. The mothers also can be resistant to change. They have been so indoctrinated to their status as second class citizens, as servants of men and their needs without regard for their own personal needs, that they are sometimes resistant to (present an argument against) spending a few dollars for feminine hygiene products for their daughters.

Who are your end users?

The end users are adolescent girls in the remote area of Itombwe. They are school-aged girls 11-20 years old from poor families in the area. Our target is 4000 girls per year who enroll in Itombwe secondary schools. This implies reproductive health education as well as making and distributing 4000 kits to them. Other beneficiaries include the seamstresses who sew the kits, and the Girl Ambassadors who will be doing the reproductive health rights teaching and training. Also, the mom's of adolescent girls will benefit from the program through community awareness, acceptance, and even support of women and their role in the family model of the area.

Where will your idea be implemented?

  • Democratic Republic of Congo

What is the primary type of emergency setting where your innovation would operate?

  • Armed conflict
  • Prolonged displacement

Tell us more about the emergency setting that you intend to implement in

Itombwe is remote. It is a location that is devoid of any infrastructure whatsoever. There is a road created and maintained by various people through the years, but without any government intervention. It can take 12 hours to 3 days to get to Itombwe from Uvira. It is only barely passable 4 months of the year -the dry season -and it requires a beast of a vehicle to traverse it during the dry season; something like a safari-styled Toyota Land Cruiser, which we have - 2006 model.

What is your organization's name?

SAFECO - Synergie des Associations Feminines du Congo / Synergy of Congolese Women's Associations

Tell us more about you.

My name is Neema Namadamu. I am founder and executive director of SAFECO. I am a polio survivor. I am the first women with a disability from my tribe to graduate from the university. I was chief advisor to DRC's Minister of Gender and Family for five years; until 2007. I then moved from Kinshasa back to Bukavu and worked to help women with disabilities. I founded SAFECO in 2012, renting space in a local cyber café to teach women computer skills and to get them connected online. We now have two Centers; in Bukavu and in Itombwe, both with free laptop training and online connectivity for women. We mentor, we advocate, we teach business skills, we plant trees, we make sani-pad kits, and we just broke ground on an all-girls school.

Organizational Characteristics

  • Women-led organization
  • Locally/community-led organization

What is the current scale of your proposed innovation?

  • National - expansive reach within 1 country

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • Yes, for more than one year.

Expertise in Sector

  • Yes, for more than a year.

Organization Location

Democratic Republic of Congo/South-Kivu/Itombwe

What is your organizational status?

  • Registered non-profit, charity, NGO, or community-based organization.

What is the maturity of your innovation?

  • Roll-out/Ready to Scale: Completed a pilot and am ready / in process of expanding.


How has your idea changed based on feedback?

A question we received from the OpenIdeo Experts about how to make the program more sustainable caused us to consider consolidating the project to a particular zone of 25 schools in our area, which would enable us to effectively sensitize and saturate the need for feminine hygiene products among the estimated 608 menstruating adolescent girls in school. We will then be able to monitor and evaluate the long-term impact of the sensitization campaign, coupled with equipping each of the 608 menstruating girls with a feminine hygiene product. Right now, among the 25 schools, there are 328 girls enrolled in Primary 1 (1st grade), but only 20 girls enrolled in Secondary 6 (12th grade); indicating a 94% dropout rate. Equipping every school girl of menstruating age with a feminine hygiene kit will enable us to evaluate the impact of feminine hygiene products on keeping girls in school, their school grades, and their ability to overcome the cultural paradigm of early and forced marriage.

Who will implement this idea?

The project will be monitored out of Bukavu by SAFECO's executive director and program director, and locally by the director of the Itombwe Maman Shujaa Center. The project will be directly managed in Itombwe by the Keep Girls in School program manager (a former Girl Ambassador), who will be managing a team of approximately 10 trained seamstresses, a program marketer, and a troupe of 5 Girl Ambassadors. The director of the Itombwe Center lives at the Center, as well as the Keep Girls in School program manager and a program marketer. The team of 5 girls ambassadors will board at the dedicated Keep Girls in School building with the marketer for the duration of the project. All will be working the project full-time. The part-time seamstresses live in the area surrounding the Center.

Using a human-centered design approach, you may uncover insights that lead to small or foundational changes to your organization’s existing strategy or processes in order to unlock the potential of your idea. How would your organization go about making such changes?

The key contributors to our program improvement are always our on-the-ground, implementation team. Their continual evaluation and feedback is paramount to the process. SAFECO is a synergy of Congolese women’s association members, many of which are coming and going to and from the Center each day. This level of participation allows for an abundance of brainstorming between the executive director, the director of programs, and the leaders of the many member organizations. SAFECO has a number of international partners that we have worked with through the years to establish what today are our Girl Ambassadors and Keep Girls in School programs. Whether the idea is brand new, or a change, exploration then feedback from the team on the ground is how things get finally decided.

What challenges do your end-users face? (1) What is the biggest challenge that your end-users face on a day-to-day, individual level? (2) What is the biggest systems-level challenge that affects your end-users?

The challenge that adolescent girls face is the fact that they are only a girl. They carry a stigma of enormous weight and everything about them only adds to the weight they carry. They are to be invisible servants of the household, especially the men. They do the bulk of the chores and care for their younger siblings. If they want to go to school, they are only draining the family budget. Authorities are oblivious and/or ignorant to the needs of girls. When I introduced the Stay in School feminine hygiene kit, one headmaster told me that he had tried to address the high dropout rate by providing lanterns and kerosene oil for the girls, but it didn’t help. He asked, “how did you know?” I answered, “because I am a woman." Women are never consulted, even about women's issues.

Tell us about your vision for this project: (1) share one sentence about the impact you would like to see from this project in five years and (2) what is the biggest question you need to answer to get there?

Impact: I hope to equip every menstruating girl attending school in a specific zone with a Stay in School kit, so I can measure and evaluate the impact a feminine hygiene solution has long-term on a girl’s school attendance and GPA, as well as her ability to stay in school until graduation, thwarting the cultural paradigm of early and forced marriage. Question: What questions do we need to include in our annual M & E survey to best track and document all the intended outcomes of the project.

What is it that most attracted you to Amplify instead of a more traditional funding model?

The beauty of the Amplify process is that smaller NGOs such as ours, have access to design and iteration intelligence from all over the world. We were able to get feedback from around 40 different people on our idea. A number of the comments had questions and suggested different paths, some of which we investigated, but all were food for thought. It is collaborative brainpower one cannot create on their own. Our committee to design, iterate, revise new solutions grew to 45 people overnight.

How long have you and your colleagues been working on this idea together?

  • More than 2 years

How many of your organizations’s paid, full-time staff are currently based in the location where the beneficiaries of your proposed idea live?

  • Under 5 paid, full-time staff

Is your organization registered in the country you intend to implement your idea in?

  • We are registered in all countries where we plan to implement.

My organization's operational budget for 2016 was:

  • Between $100,000 and $500,000 USD

What do you need the most support with for your innovation?

  • Program/Service Design


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Photo of Marie Anne

Giving it our all to ensure reproductive health knowledge is well propergated. I'm more than ready for the task.

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