Verity Germon interviews Ella Lambert, founder and CEO of The Pachamama Project. Ella Lambert is a 3rd year Spanish and Russian Bristol student.
V: Can you give me a brief overview of what the Pachamama project does and its aims?
E: So, the Pachamama project is a network of volunteers around the world to make sanitary pads for refugees. The idea of this is create a long-term solution for period poverty which disproportionately affects refugees. We now have around 150 volunteers making sanitary pads. We have volunteers in Italy, France, Germany, Spain and are also growing a network of volunteers in the US. This will hopefully make the project more sustainable so the pads can be made in the same location that they are needed. Pads that we are currently making in the UK are being distributed to Lebanon, Greece and the UK itself.
V: It’s crazy that only started this in August and now have networks all over the world!
Yeah, it partly started as in the summer (2020) I was supposed to go and work in a refugee camp but of the course this never happened due to the lockdown. I thought that there must be a way of me helping refugees while being stuck at home, which led me to start creating reusable pads. I thought it would just be me and a couple of friends doing it I never expected it to become international!
V: I was surprised to learn the project had only be formed last year and yet your website seems incredibly professional and well informed.
E: We were really lucky to have a response from a post we put on the university Facebook page from a woman who is the mum of a Bristol student. She is a professional web designer and offered to create the website for us for free! Not only that she offered to pay for the cost of using the website! We’ve had so many lovely people volunteering to help us and wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.
V: So obviously lockdown has caused lots of hardships for everyone how did you decide to focus on period poverty?
E: I have always suffered from extreme period pain and so I have a great kinship with people who can’t do everyday activities simply because of their period. Every month I had to miss days of school and university, I’ve had to cancel things last minute because of this. However, every time this has happened, I’ve had the privilege of a warm bed, access to safe sanitary products and I can’t imagine how bad it would be without these things. I heard of other Charites that were teaching people to make sanitary products, but this tended to be in other countries. No one seemed to be doing this in the UK and so I thought this was something I could do. Particularly in lockdown lots of people were looking for productive things to do.
V: Up to 500 million girls and women are living each month in period poverty, why do you think period poverty is this such a huge problem and what does society need to do to end it?
E: I think it’s a major problem because we don’t talk about periods. Periods are a source of taboo in every culture. In the UK many girls would be embarrassed to walk to the toilet with a tampon, in other cultures women are put into a ‘red tent’ when on their periods.
Another thing is that Period poverty is not a household name, when people think of poverty they think of food and shelter, we rarely think of sanitary products.
We also need to include men and boys into the conversation around periods. Young boys and girls should have conversations about it, so girls feel less shame around it.
Also, what about single fathers? How are they supposed to have conversations with their daughters about menstruation and know what products to get them if we don’t speak to men about periods?
V: Caroline Perez a feminist campaigner who has worked with the Fawcett society suggested that women’s issues have been ignored during the pandemic – did this have any influence over your decision to set up the charity?
E: I would say that during the beginning of the pandemic, refugees were widely hit as organisations had to cut back on staff. it was harder for charities to get access to camps. which led to charities having to seriously priorities what they focused which was generally food and shelter. Sanitary products were not the priority and so were very hard for women to access. Also, women’s health is often ignored. For example, endometriosis is a serious illness than can lead to infertility and yet the only treatments are a hysterectomy or birth control. As far as I can see there is no new research being done. It also takes ages for women to ger diagnosis with this as doctors will often just dismiss it as a ‘painful period’ and nothing more.
V: You’re the CEO of the project, what does your role entail?
E: I started off alongside studying but is basically now a full-time job! I create the partnership with distributors abroad. I do a lot of outreach to potential volunteers such as clubs, women’s institutes, societies and schools. I let them know about the project and then send them the YouTube tutorial on how to make the pads and also the best way to source material to make them with. We used 90% donated recycled materials. When the pads are made they all get sent to my house, so we have about 500,000 pacha pads in the house right now! Which is enough for over 1000 people.
V: Who else involved and helps you out?
There is my friend Olivia also a student at Bristol who the director is. My mum was doing so much for the project that I made her director as well. We also have over 350 volunteers.
V: What has been the biggest challenge and what has been the most rewarding aspect of running the project so far?
E: In Lebanon there was a concern over how the women would dry their pacha pads. They were worried that hanging them up to dry would create embarrassment and unwanted attention for men. But we came up with a solution which was to pin the pads in their underwear when drying so they weren’t visible. We also managed to source a tumble dryer to use in one of the centres in Lebanon.
There are so many rewarding aspects! Lots of volunteers have told me that the project has given them a sense of purpose and improved their mental health. It also has created a really supportive community, volunteers in certain areas have zoom callas and WhatsApp chats. We’ve also had amazing feedback from the refugee women who have said how they love the pacha pads and how they work really well. I’ve had the privilege of talking to the women from the refugee camps and hearing their stories.
One of the worst things I heard about was when the Lebanon camp was destroyed in a fire and we quickly responded with emergency aid. One of the NGOS I was working with asked us to source some adult nappies. These were needed desperately by the women in the camps who could not go to the toilets during the night due to the threat of male violence that they would be exposed to walking alone in the dark to relieve themselves.
V: How can other best get involved and help out the charity?
E: Anyone that has a sewing machine or free time can get involved. It super easy. I had never sewn when I started the project. You can also fundraise. If anyone wants to help with admin by calling fabric companies that would also be super helpful!
V: What do envision for the future of the Pachamama Project?
The thing is with period poverty, it will always be a problem and so I don’t really see an end goal. There will always be a war or natural disaster that means women will need help accessing sanitary products. So, I want the project to carry on making as many pacha pads as possible!
Just to add that the period society in Bristol will be holding workshops on how to make the pads when lockdown ends!
All social media: @thepachaproject
Art is from those who attended the International Women’s Day life drawing workshop.