This Social Enterprise Wants to End Period Stigma and Empower Women and Girls
Words by Roya Sabri
When Diana Sierra founded Be Girl a decade ago, global period protection wasn't yet a hot topic. In traveling to Uganda, she was surprised to learn that girls lacked effective ways to manage their periods. While working on United Nations-funded projects, local girls would often ask her for jobs, and Sierra saw they had a serious need for income. Connecting the dots, she realized these girls were missing a quarter of the month of their schooling or work when their periods came around because they could not afford hygiene supplies. Global studies have confirmed a similar connection between menstruation and lost wages, the United Nations Population Fund reports.
The girls she met used absorbent material, such as torn rags or pieces of mattress, to manage their periods, solutions Sierra said can be uncomfortable and ineffective. As an industrial designer, she was inspired to create something new. Her first PeriodPanty prototype was made out of mosquito netting and umbrella material. She pursued the project after work hours, making alterations and gathering feedback, until one response changed her course. A girl in Tanzania wrote in a survey, “What I like best — it makes me proud to be girl!” The next day, Sierra quit her day job and leaped head-first into her social enterprise.
Sierra said moments like this showed her that Be Girl is about more than panties, pads and menstrual cups. She sees the products she makes as vehicles for upending harmful narratives about menstruation, increasing body agency, and helping girls and women embrace and love who they are.
“We need to be transformational going forward”
“It is high time we throw aside the myths and misconceptions and the negativity that, for too long, has surrounded the menstrual life cycle, from menarche to menopause,” Dr. Julitta Onabanjo, the U.N. Population Fund’s regional director in East and Southern Africa, said at the first African Menstrual Health Management Symposium in 2018.
“We need to be transformational going forward,” she added. Be Girl has been quietly transforming its corners of the world through innovative and empathetic designs. Over the past six years, the initiative has distributed more than 250,000 products to women and girls in over 30 countries and provided age-appropriate education to help boys and girls understand the beauty of menstruation.
Understanding that many around the world have trouble accessing products and services “just because they happen not to be in a viable market,” Sierra said she strives to develop products specifically for the markets she serves, not as “parachute solutions” dropped from the global north into economically developing nations.
Her creative process was founded on respect for the user, which included gathering regular feedback from girls and taking that feedback seriously, she continued. While girls had absorbent material, they needed something comfortable and leakproof. Sierra's PeriodPanty design can transform any absorbent material into a sanitary pad — communicating to girls that what they were already doing was right, but the PeriodPanty could help them do it better.
Sierra’s team continues to listen to the girls it serves. When girls said they loved the product but wondered why the panties were black and didn’t come in “girly” colors, Sierra realized her customers saw the underwear as an accessory and not simply a practical necessity. Yet again, she thought out of the box and used colors like bright blue and purple, which still disguise any leaks but look fun while doing it.
Solving more than half the problem: Teaching boys about menstruation
The Be Girl team does more than sell menstrual products. It also engages girls and boys around the world in conversation. Just like her creative process, Sierra's approach to these conversations evolves with feedback. Initially, the team spoke exclusively with girls. But the prevailing issue girls report about their periods is being bullied by boys. Sierra realized her team was only solving half the problem because they were only talking to half the population.
“[Boys] are as important and crucial to this matter, and they're being left out in complete ignorance," she said. "We started doing some workshops, but the real click was when we designed the SmartCycle." The SmartCycle is a small mechanical disk that can track a woman's menstrual cycle. On one side of the disk, numbers represent the days of a cycle. The other side has symbols representing the key phases of a cycle — menstruation, ovulation and preparation. As you turn the disk to the proper day, it clicks into place.
This toy Sierra designed for girls actually became a gateway for boys. While Be Girl representatives talk to girls about menstruation with sanitary pads in their hands, that same solution wouldn't work with boys. "It's very shocking," Sierra explained. "It's very difficult, so you needed to have another entry point, and this little clock, being something mechanical … really caught their attention."
Boys now go through Be Girl’s classes with a SmartCycle in their hands and are tasked with giving it to a girl or woman who is important to them and teaching her how to use it. Be Girl calls these boys’ workshops "Building Cycles of Empathy."
How mentorship helped this social enterprise scale
When Kimberly-Clark and its foundation, the company’s Kotex brand, and the Toilet Board Coalition launched the Women in the Sanitation Economy Innovation Lab in 2020, Be Girl was focused on scaling. Sierra joined the six-month program, which looks to cultivate women-led and women’s health-focused businesses within the sanitation economy. Through the program, Kimberly-Clark’s employees offered expertise and guidance to Sierra and four other impact entrepreneurs from Kenya, the U.S. and the U.K who are all focused on addressing some of the world’s most critical sanitation issues.
Be Girl’s team had a chance to speak with advisors they wouldn’t normally encounter, said Tatiana Reyes Jové, chief growth officer for Be Girl. The mentorship experience also helped the small company understand and address challenges to growth. “I currently lead both supply chain and business-to-consumer sales and marketing, so having a trusted expert advisor that I can turn to and problem-solve with has made a world of difference,” she told TriplePundit. Be Girl’s two mentors, specializing in supply chain and sales and marketing, helped the business attain key milestones this year, Jové said, part of which included entering the Kenyan market.
Be Girl aims to keep getting bigger. ”I really want to make sure that Be Girl is kind of like the Nike of period panties in emerging economies,” Sierra told us.
And what is a world with more Be Girl? The vision Sierra hopes everyone supports in their own way — whether through finance, activism, art or any avenue — is one where individuals progress in their education and careers based on merit, not gender. “In our case, we work in menstrual health, menstrual protection and education,” but everyone can do their part in creating this equitable landscape, she said.
This article series is sponsored by Kimberly-Clark and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Images courtesy of Be Girl