The Red Elephant unofficially began in 2009 when founder Amanda Sarrazin-Gould first visited a rural village in Tanzania with a group of University of Alberta students to educate the community about prevention and care for many prevalent health issues, including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and maternal health.
Prior to her trip, she discovered that menstruation wasn’t being addressed in the village she was visiting; rather, it was being ignored and stigmatized.
After creating a pattern and a plan for making a simple, reusable sanitary pad, Amanda began gathering the supplies needed to produce these pads. Just hours before boarding her flight to Tanzania, she stitched the last of the roughy 400 fabric pads she constructed.
Menstrual products not accessible
Amanda and her peers hosted a discussion forum with secondary school girls in the village. The students shared how there were very few options available to women in the village, and even fewer options they could actually afford. Several girls simply skipped school to avoid the embarrassment of bleeding, as they had nothing to absorb the menstrual blood. Some said they used dirty, wadded-up rags. Others used toilet paper – a luxury for most – to line their undergarments with a layer several centimetres thick. One girl said she rolled newspaper into a tampon-like device.
None of these options were sanitary, most were not optimally effective, and many were not dignified. These remarkable young women, who often faced so many added barriers and burdens in order to get to the secondary-school level, deserved better. So did every other woman in the village, across the country, and in the world.
The group then hosted a pad-making workshop at the girls dormitory at the secondary school, where the girls and women’s groups were invited to learn how to make their own reusable sanitary pads.
Materials, templates and instructions – translated into Swahili – were supplied to them. The scissors in the village were dull, the lighting was minimal with no electricity, and the borrowed sewing machines kept breaking the thread. But the group had a mission.
After several hours, the sun went down and there was no longer any light source, but attendees refused to leave; they kept tracing, talking, cutting, laughing and sewing.
When the night was finally winding down, the pads created back in Canada were distributed with one pad provided to each secondary school girl, whom were overcome with emotion and gratitude.
That emotional response stoked the spark, and created the fire that would become The Red Elephant.
Why ‘The Red Elephant’?
Even though women make up just over half the global population – with most women experiencing menstruation during and throughout a sustained period of their life – the stigma surrounding menstruation in huge.
When young girls are forced to sit in the middle of the floor at home or in a segregated hut and remain there until their menses concludes, at the expense of furthering their education in the classroom, the world suffers. When women are forced to use unsanitary materials that pose a hazard to their health and well-being in order to avoid the imposed shame that comes with menstruation, the world suffers. When the world suffers, it does so in silence as a result of the stigma surrounding menstruation.
The Red Elephant addresses an issue that permeates every family, every community and every nation in the world. This issue is menstruation. This issue is a proverbial ‘white elephant in the room.’ Everybody knows it is there, but nobody will talk about it. The greatest failure the world can do is to collectively remain silent, so we are breaking that silence.