By Shira Bick
It’s not easy helping young women in Africa get an education these days.
Just a few months ago Oprah’s good intentions fell flat after an employee at a school she started for girls in South Africa was arrested on charges of physical and sexual abuse.
A more recent example is the growing number of organizations sending pads and tampons to young women in rural villages. Apparently these women miss school when they menstruate because they lack proper feminine hygiene products. The thinking is that providing pads will allow the recipients to attend school more regularly and not fall behind in their education.
These programs might be well meaning but few are well thought out. Sending over consumer goods doesn’t get at the real root of the issue: crippling poverty. Most of these women just can’t afford the time or the supplies needed to attend school. Still, organizations charge into their target countries with relief programs that are short sighted and unmindful of any environmental or cultural factors which might conflict with their goodwill agenda.
Take Procter and Gamble’s heavily promoted Protecting Futures campaign, which sends free Always pads to young women in South Africa. The company’s website describes the program as “a better chance [for these girls to gain an] education, and that means a better chance for the future.”
Putting aside the obvious public relations benefits to the company, it’s easy to poke holes in their plan. Procter and Gamble has only made a five-year commitment to the campaign and the company is mute on what will happen to these young women after that time is up. The program has also come under fire for being environmentally irresponsible. A short time after the campaign launched online forums exploded with posts saying the pads contributed unnecessary waste to the area.
This problem isn’t limited to the corporate arena. Even organizations devoted to more sustainable solutions fail to come up with more viable solutions.
After hearing about Protecting Futures, environmental blogger Deanna Duke founded her own counter organization, Goods 4 Girls, tProxy-Connection: keep-alive
send over reusable pads that could be washed and re-worn. The program encourages consumers to purchase these kits or even to sew and send reusable pads on their own.
“While I applaud [Procter and Gamble’s] effort in helping the girls [in South Africa] continue to go to school, I am unsettled by sending over so many disposables where incineration is the main method of disposal,” she writes in her blog.
Duke’s intentions are clearly earnest but she’s still missing the meat of the problem. The obstacles impeding African girls from attending school regularly or at all have more to do with complex global issues than with menstrual cycles.
Dr. Sunera Thobani, a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of British Columbia says that all of these programs are only band-aid solutions.
“The real reason these girls don’t have futures is not because they miss school once a month but because poverty and global inequality are working against them. These are the core issues that need to be addressed,” she says. “It’s not to say that these programs don’t help at all and if you’re comparing the two programs, of course reusable pads are better because they’re not destroying the environment. But it’s still not a permanent solution to anything.”
Groups like Goods 4 Girls do have the right idea about merging eco-consciousness with social action, though, particularly at an international level. Social issues and sustainability generally go together – and all aid has to consider this relationship.
Aid organizations aren’t the only ones who need to expand their understanding of international development issues. There should also be a responsibility on the part of the people supporting these organizations to understand exactly how their money is helping.
Goods 4 Girls has received a lot of praise from eco-conscious consumers who have donated funds because they wanted to take part in a sustainable social action.
Once again, the intentions are good. The problem is when people begin to passively support organizations because they’re eco-friendly and don’t understand the larger issues involved.
Dr. Thobani warns that people are easily pacified by aid organizations saying they’re greener.
“Consumers are actually being kept ignorant by these programs and encouraged to become complacent. They think that they are helping to solve the problem but they never actually find out what causes these inequalities and why they continue. This stops the learning on the part of the consumer,” she says.
Dr. John Robinson, Principle Investigator for the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at UBC also says consumers should know to be wary of corporate aid initiatives, as they tend to hit others besides their intended targets. After all, when young women in South Africa get their hands on those Always pads, it’s going to create a whole new market for Procter and Gamble.
“The most important thing with aid and development is to know who’s benefiting from your contributions because a lot of aid programs don’t actually benefit those in need. They benefit corporations in developed countries or else they benefit rich elites in the target countries,” he says.
Turns out the young women in Africa aren’t the only ones in need of schooling.