Can you imagine not being able to go to school because you're on your period?

Sue Barnes’ Project Dignity allows girls and young women in townships and rural areas to keep attending school while they’re menstruating.

Sue Barnes, founder of Project Dignity, a remarkable initiative for South African school girls, has been recognised as the 2013 Clarins Most Dynamic Woman of the Year.

Barnes, from Cowies Hill in KwaZulu-Natal, founded the project after she learned how many girls in poor communities skip school while they menstruate.

Lacking money to buy sanitary products, many South African school girls don't attend class during menstruation.

They also put themselves at risk of infection by using unhygienic alternatives to sanitary pads, such as newspaper or even sand and leaves. As a result, millions of girls miss up to a quarter of their school days.

“My youngest daughter, who attends a remedial school due to her dyslexia, came home with appeals from her school for sanitary pads and panties,” says Barnes. “I went to the school to find out what it was all about, and discovered just how many South African girls skip school while menstruating.

I immediately thought of my own daughter. If she missed a week per month of school there is no way she would catch up. It's tragic that anyone in their teen years should be faced with this dilemma.”

Barnes realised that donations of sanitary products would not provide a sustainable solution to this profound yet largely hidden social challenge. After much experimentation and several trial runs, she created a pair of panties with a clip-on, reusable pad which ensures the girls need never worry about running out of this essential item.

The pad is fully washable, can last for up to 5 years and has SABS absorbency approval. While handing out Project Dignity's Subz packs, Barnes also gives the girls a unique set of education sessions on puberty, menstruation, personal hygiene, sexual health and HIV.

“A lot of the girls are from child-headed homes and do not have anyone at home to talk to about these crucial issues,” says Barnes. “Our sessions are very interactive, and Gert-Johan Coetzee's involvement here has been amazing, in every sense of the word.”

Gert-Johan Coetzee is a well-known fashion designer collaborating, via the Shout initiative, with Project Dignity. He developed 2 interactive aprons for the education sessions, one depicting the puberty process and the other the menstrual cycle.

“The body parts on the aprons are removable, which allows us to demonstrate body’s functioning in a very practical way,” says Barnes. “The eggs are visible in the ovaries and the fallopian tubes clip on and off for ease of demonstration.

"The uterus is also removable and through the demonstrations the girls can fully understand the menstrual cycle. These are incredibly practical tools to use, and allow us to drive home the vital facts.

"Ultimately, the process is just as important to the girls as the Subz packs themselves.”

“Every year we are moved by the dozens of deserving nominations we receive, but Sue’s story is a truly inspirational one,” says Jody Hyam, Group Communications Executive of Clarins South Africa.

“In addition to her compassion and dedication, she has also shown a remarkable ability to create innovative solutions to address a major social problem. We know that she will be able to put the prize money to very good use.”

With the aid of her corporate and personal donors, Barnes has already been able to distribute 30,000 Subz Panty Pads to girls around the country. Project Dignity has spread to other parts of South Africa, and has even been taken to Zanzibar by Margaret Hirsch, owner of Project Dignity sponsor, Hirsch’s.

“This is a major problem faced by many school-going girls around the world,” says Hirsch.

“The time they lose at school cannot be easily caught up, which has unfortunate and very important implications for their futures. It's been an honour and an enlightening experience to get involved in this project and to explore options that can lead to a more positive and healthy way of life.

"Sue and the rest of the Project Dignity team deserve all the credit in the world for what they have done.” 

The winner of the Clarins Most Dynamic Woman of the Year 2013 will receive a cash prize of R150 000 in 2013 and a further R50 000 in the second year of her win through careful consideration, the prize money is utilised to ensure further sustainability and growth of the winner’s project. 

For more information or to make a donation please contact Sue on 083 661 8963 or email sue@mallards.co.za.

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Read more on: sex education  |  charity

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