Bioethics Students’ Design Empowers Female Refugees

Monday, June 18, 2018

by Julia Snyder '19 (M.A.)

The assignment was simple: Student groups must create a project that will counter health issues found in third-world countries. The projects must address the issue from ethical, medical, public health and policy dimensions.

“The students knew that young girls are dropping out of school in India, because they don’t have menstrual pads,” says Peter Clark, S.J., director of the Institute of Clinical Bioethics (ICB). “We know that if you don’t educate women, they’re not going to be able to go to college. They’re not going to be able to have a career.”

A group of four undergraduate students in Fr. Clark’s course, “Just Healthcare in Developing Nations,” team-taught with Ann Marie Jursca-Keffer, director of the Faith-Justice Institute, created a basic design for sustainable sanitary pads to enable Indian women to continue attending school without the fear of bleeding through their clothing. The original project included an informal prototype and a brochure which explained how to create and clean the sanitary pad, as well as how to track and understand a menstrual cycle. After the completion of the course, the project stood out to the ICB.

"We liked the project, but then we thought, ‘How do we implement this?’” says Fr. Clark.

In order to fully explore the design needs of sanitary pads, SJU students Christina Gareis ’19, Megan McNamee ’19 and Olivia Nguyen ’19 along with Fr. Clark formed an interdisciplinary alliance with Drexel University and Mercy Catholic Medical Center, including Alphonso McClendon, interim chair of fashion and design; graduate student of design research Thanh My Nguyen ’18; and Ana Maheshwari, MD, chief resident physician. Their collaborative efforts ensured that the ethical, medical and practical designs of the sustainable sanitary pads would be suitable for actual implementation in third-world countries.

“We all got together and created this outline of a paper: Our students would do the introduction and the purpose; Dr. Maheshwari would cover the medical issues; and the Drexel team would do the prototyping,” says Fr. Clark. In addition to ensuring the materials used in the project were available in India — thanks to a visit to Eco Femme in Tamil Nadu, India, by Maheshwari — the resulting document also includes a section on how to microfinance groups of women to produce and sell the sanitary pads.

“We created a baseline and about four different prototypes,” says Nguyen. “We were fiddling with which design was better: whether it was an all-in-one pocket where you just wash the whole thing, or you can do an insert where you just replace them. The purpose of the project is to educate, encourage, and empower women in developing nations, and the idea is based on a human-centered design, which lets the women themselves offer feedback in order to create a sanitary pad that is best suited for them. We teach them the basics, but they bring to fruition what they think is most sustainable, sanitary, affordable and adaptable."

The hard work of the group was funneled into one concise article which was published in The Internet Journal of World Health and Societal Politics, but the life of the project is far from over. After mentioning the article to Bob Hussey, S.J., Provincial of the Maryland Province, who serves on the board of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Fr. Clark began working to microfinance the project with a women’s reproductive group based out of a refugee camp in Chad. If all goes to plan, an initial donation from the JRS would provide women in Chad with the materials and sewing machines to begin producing these sustainable pads and create jobs.

"This is one of the times we could really collaborate with another university in a very different area,” says Fr. Clark. “Here’s really where I think a college course made a difference. I think that says something. Not all courses are theoretical, some of them can be very practical.”

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