Freweini Mebrahtu, an Ethiopian woman who studied chemical engineering in the US, designed and patented a reusable menstrual pad in 2005. Together with her team, she sells more than 80% of the pads she manufactures to non-governmental organizations that distribute them to girls in Ethiopia for free.
Because of her work in ending the cultural stigma against periods, Mebrahtu has been named 2019 CNN Hero of the Year.
Getting periods is a naturally-occurring biological phenomenon for females. While this fact is generally accepted and understood in the western parts of the world, the opposite is true in the rural parts of Ethiopia.
Girls who are from this country are forced to miss school and sometimes, even drop out, simply because of their periods. This stigma associated with menstruation can have a detrimental effect on their education and the rest of their lives. While it is unimaginable, it happens to as many as half of the females residing in those rural areas.
Mebrahtu is well aware of this issue as she also experienced its devastating effects back when she was a young girl.
“I remembered (hearing) that it’s actually a curse to have a period … or that it meant I am ready to be married, or (that) I’m being bad,” Mebrahtu told CNN.
So, she dedicated her life to keeping girls in school by designing a reusable menstrual pad. Her advocacy and the positive impact it has had on the lives of countless women earned her the 2019 CNN Hero of the Year award.
“I don’t even know what to say,” she said when receiving the award. “I am so humbled and grateful for CNN … this is for all the girls and women everywhere. Dignity for all.”
From among the Top 10 CNN Hero Finalists, online voters deemed Mebrahtu as the most deserving recipient of the recognition.
Mebrahtu and her team manufacture 750,000 reusable pads annually at her factory in Ethiopia. More than 80% of these pads are sold to non-governmental organizations that distribute them for free. So far, her work has helped nearly 80,000 girls and women in the African country.
Aside from producing reusable menstrual pads, Mebrahtu has also partnered with the non-governmental organization, Dignity Period, to end the humiliation associated with periods by holding speaking engagements in schools and teaching boys and girls that menstruation is natural and that it is nothing to be ashamed of.
“The whole goal was not only making the pads, but also attacking the cultural baggage to it,” she said.
The group has distributed over 150,000 free menstrual hygiene kits bought from Mebrahtu’s factory. Data gathered showed that schools visited by the organization had a 24% spike in attendance among girls, proving that the movement is effective.
As the 2019 CNN Hero of the Year, Mebrahtu will receive a $100,000 cash grant to help expand her work. On Sunday’s gala, all of the top 10 CNN Heroes for the year were recognized and will be awarded a $10,000 cash grant. Hosts Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa presented Mebrahtu with the prestigious award.
Mebrahtu’s win this year will also help spread awareness about this issue, and we hope that as the years go by, all of Ethiopia will come to see menstruation as a natural phenomenon and nothing else.
If you would like to support Mebrahtu’s cause or any of the nonprofit organizations of the nominees, you may make a donation via CNNHeroes.com. All donations made by January 2, 2020, will be matched by Subaru up to $50,000 per hero.
If you know someone who is making it their mission to create a better world, you may nominate them as a 2020 CNN Hero at CNNHeroes.com.
Watch Mebrahtu’s interview after the awards ceremony in the video below.