Ending period poverty. Period.
Ending period poverty. Period.
LCF supports Mensadora with $69,000 Social Impact Fund loan.
July 3, 2019
Thousands of women in low-income situations can’t afford period care products and are often forced to make decisions that not only compromise their health, but their dignity.
It’s an issue that is quickly becoming more and more visible in Canada. As of April 2019, London city council unanimously voted to stock public-facing city-owned buildings with free menstrual products, becoming the first Canadian city to do so. While this is a vitally important step forward, much more can be done.
Sarah Askew is working to change that through Mensadora, her social enterprise that manufactures and sells reusable menstrual products. Priced at $167 for a set of nine pads, a carrying bag and drying strap, these pads last up to seven years and are made from a combination of fabrics and absorbent materials that are chemical free, machine washable, and biodegradable.
“Period poverty is a massive issue in Canada,” says Sarah. “When I was in university as a single mother, so many times I had to choose between feeding my child and buying period care products. My child never went hungry.”
Thanks to the help of London Community Foundation’s Social Impact Fund and a $69,000 loan, Sarah has been able to significantly scale up her business, create more awareness about her product, and expand her network. She’s been able to focus more on the social aspect as well, something that has always been important to Sarah and a foundational principle she’s carried into her business.
“I believe we’re all servants to humanity,” says Sarah. “We just have to figure out what that servitude can look like based on what we like and what we love.”
For Sarah, the journey toward discovering what her servitude looks like was a global one, beginning in Vietnam.
In 2014, Sarah, her partner Tyler, and her son Nicholas sold all of their possessions and moved to Vietnam to become English Second Language teachers. When they arrived however, they found out that their prospective employer did not have the authority to hire them, stranding them in Vietnam for three months with barely $1000 to their name.
Eventually making their way to Hội An, Sarah quickly settled into life in Vietnam, starting a massage therapy business. It wasn’t long before a group of renegade, female Buddhist monks caught her eye.
“You don’t see them in the media because it's taboo, these are rogue monks,” says Sarah. “And what they were doing was going to these little villages and handing out reusable period care products, and at the time coming from such a disposable society, I thought it was crazy!”
Almost as quickly as they arrived, Sarah, Tyler and Nicholas were heading back to Canada. Ever curious and filled with wanderlust, they wouldn’t stay still for long. Two weeks after they got back from Vietnam they were on their way to live in an eco-village in the Yucatan Jungle in Mexico.
It was there that Sarah encountered reusable menstrual products for the second time.
“When you’re deep in the jungle, it’s not like Cancun or the other tourist-friendly areas, everyone uses reusables,” says Sarah. “That’s all we used as well. There was no garbage pickup; everything was burned, buried, or reused.”
After close to eight months, the combination of a sweltering, scorpion-infested jungle and funding cuts to the eco-village forced Sarah and her family to move back to Canada. Spurred onward by their wayfaring nature and a transformational idea simmering in the back of their minds, they set their sights on the vast and welcoming landscape of Canada.
After converting a school bus into a mobile home using only reused and recycled materials, they began their cross-country journey to see firsthand whether period poverty was an issue outside of the comparatively dense Ontario.
“I set out to see just how widespread the problem was,” says Sarah. “And it was the same everywhere, in every town. Women in poverty throughout Canada couldn’t cover the cost of their period care.”
It wasn’t long before their bus broke down in the Rocky Mountains close to the Alaskan border. However, it was some bad news from home, not a broken bus that would put an end to their cross-country journey. Both of Sarah’s parents became extremely sick, and so Sarah, Tyler, and Nicholas moved back to Ontario.
“I started sewing pads in my parents’ house,” says Sarah. “I could see there was such a need for it. That’s really how the whole thing got started.”
Rebel Rags and Mensadora
Sarah came up with the Rebel Rags moniker by appropriating some of the dismissive and derogatory language toward menstruation and period care of the past.
“I remember when I used to hear things like ‘Oh don’t mind her, she’s on her rag’,” recalls Sarah. “We wanted a kind of edgy and provocative name, you know?”
Sarah realized that the rambunctious name might limit their growth in the long run, so she decided to reserve it for the charitable portion of her activities and come up with a new name for her business as a whole: Mensadora.
“It’s a combination of ‘mensa-‘, referring to menstruation, and ‘-dora’ which is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘gift’,” says Sarah. “This is kind of like our gift to help support humanity.”
All of Mensadora’s products are hand-sewn by Sarah herself. With a mandate to donate one pad for every pad sold, she spends upwards of 15 hours a day sewing. This is time she could be spending growing her business and focusing on the bigger picture: restoring people’s dignity.
“We needed to get incorporated, rent a larger space, buy more efficient machines, the ability to purchase raw materials in bulk, branding,” says Sarah. “I didn’t have the time and we didn’t have the money to do any of that. Without the loan from London Community Foundation, we’d be stuck.”
Looking to the Future
Connecting to LCF through Libro Credit Union’s incubator program at Pillar Nonprofit Network, Sarah and Tyler presented their story and their vision to LCF’s Social Finance Committee.
“The entire committee was so impressed with Sarah and Tyler’s story and all the work they’ve done,” says Vijay Venkatesan, Vice-President, Finance & Operations, London Community Foundation. “It’s such an important issue and we’re proud to give them the support they need.”
This new source of funding has allowed Sarah to increase production and address Mensadora’s waiting list of over 800 people and focus and moving toward her broader vision of what Mensadora can become.
“We want to move away from the commercial and more toward the social,” says Sarah. “We want to make an impact on people’s lives, and as long as that’s happening, we’re successful.”
With plans for a secondary line of bladder care products, a community hub, a Pillar Award nomination, a partnership with the London Economic Development Corporation in the works, and a vision of a national movement to end period poverty across the country, Sarah’s work is far from done.
“Reusable solutions, not disposable bandages,” says Sarah. “We need to think long-term, about the environment, about our health, and about our society if we’re going to change anything. We believe that you don’t need a lot to make a huge difference. It’s thanks to LCF that this is all possible and we can continue to grow.”
And while growth can be intimidating, Sarah isn’t fazed.
“If the government suddenly says ‘Great idea! We’ll buy 100,000!’ – How do we make that happen?” wonders Sarah. “I’m not worried about that growth. We’re just going to make it happen.”