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Thursday, 27th May 2021

Catching up with the Cooperative: an interview with Madame Bertholine

By Polly Hedley

Tomorrow is World Menstrual Hygiene Day. This year SEED is celebrating with the Mahampy Weavers’ Cooperative who SEED have been working with on a menstrual hygiene management (MHM) project since January 2021. With limited access to sanitary materials and facilities available in the community, the pilot was initiated to empower the women to manage their menstruation safely, with dignity and with confidence. The project has seen over 130 women create over 600 reusable sanitary pads and has provided education on MHM to improve the women’s knowledge and understanding of menstrual hygiene practices. In this week’s blog we meet Madame Raharimalala Bertholine, President of the Mahefa sub-cooperative to learn more about the Cooperative itself and to discuss the impact and importance of the MHM pilot for the women in Sainte Luce.

Madame Bertholine, is the President of the Mahefa (meaning ‘you can achieve’ in Malagasy) sub-cooperative in Ampanasatomboky, Sainte Luce. Now 30 years old, Madame Bertholine first began weaving mahampy reeds when she was 14. Like many of the women in the Cooperative, Madame Bertholine was first taught by her mother who showed her how to weave and sell mahampy products as a way to supplement household income. Joining the Cooperative in November 2019, Madame Bertholine was elected as the President of the Mahefa sub-cooperative in March 2020. Consisting of 11 members, Madame Bertholine is responsible for the smallest of the five sub-cooperatives that comprise the Weavers’ Cooperative.

Madame Bertholine

As President, Madame Bertholine’s main responsibilities include representing members at Cooperative meetings and informing women in her sub-cooperative about upcoming work and training. When we asked her if her role had contributed to the development of her leadership skills, Madame Bertholine answered yes, saying it had helped her to gain respect from women in the community. Speaking on how the Cooperative has helped the weavers, Madame Bertholine said that it had benefited the women through the sharing of skills and knowledge.

In January, Madame Bertholine was nominated by the women in the Mahefa sub-cooperative to be a sewing trainer for the MHM pilot project. The pilot, which has been teaching the women from the Cooperative how to sew reusable menstrual hygiene pads, began with training ten women, two from each of the five sub-cooperatives in Sainte Luce, to be sewing trainers. Madame Bertholine was one of the women trained to be a trainer, supporting the Project Coordinator and Project Sewing Trainer in training others how to make the reusable sanitary pads. Despite at the time being unable to sew, she believes the women chose her as a trainer because of her leadership skills, stating that her Presidential position had allowed her to develop strong relationships with the women.

Even though I do not know how to sew, I am the person they trust to pass on knowledge and information.

Not only has Madame Bertholine felt that the pilot has furthered her leadership skills, but it has also allowed her to develop practical skills, learning how to sew and use scissors for the first time. For many of the women, including Madame Bertholine, the pilot has also been useful in helping the women to support their daughters. With the age of Cooperative members ranging from 16 - 70, many of the older women have sewed the pads for their daughters and their granddaughters now their own menstruation has ended. Madame Bertholine said the training sessions were helpful because “They taught us how to clean the pad and how to know when your menstruation will come back,” referring to the training that taught the women how to track their menstrual cycle to prepare for their menstruation each month.

Mother and daughter attending training together

Over the past few months, Madame Bertholine has been using the reusable pads she made during training. When asked if the pad had made it easier for her to manage her menstruation, Madame Bertholine answered “Yes, [because] if I’m walking or running it doesn’t fall out and is secure.” Previously, Madame Bertholine and the other women had been using folded lamba (cloth) to manage their menstruation, resulting in difficulties caused by the cloth falling out of place. Madame Bertholine said that the design of the new pad has increased her confidence when managing her menstruation and allowed her to feel safer when continuing with her daily activities.

Labelled diagram of reusable sanitary pad

In Madagascar, where the topic of menstruation is considered taboo, we also asked Madame Bertholine if the project has helped the women to be more open in discussing their menstruation with one another. Madame Bertholine answered yes “...Because people are not shy to discuss together, to talk openly about the pad and to convince each other [to use it].” The sessions have been taught informally and attended solely by women, creating an open environment that has encouraged group discussion. We finished our talk with Madame Bertholine by asking why the project was important to her. Madame Bertholine answered by saying that the project was important in providing support to the women on a gender specific issue. With over 130 women sewing five pads each, the women have gained the resources to confidently manage their menstruation and the knowledge to better support themselves.

SEED is proud to celebrate this World Menstrual Hygiene Day with the women of the Mahampy Weavers’ Cooperative. Their work over the past few months has minimised the disruption of menstruation on their daily life and wellbeing and raised awareness of MHM within the community. With the pilot set to expand in July, we’re excited to be celebrating this day with many more women across the Anosy region in years to come!