News Archive 2009-2018

An Ethnography of an NGO That’s Using Banana Fibers to Help Women Archives


Lydia Singerman '13

Lydia Singerman ’13

Lydia Singerman ’13 is taking advantage of her current internship at Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), a nonprofit, to learn the skills the interns typically pick up, such as how to raise money or set up a board of directors.

But the Bowdoin senior is getting much more from her experience: besides her internship duties, she’s also working on an ethnography of SHE, whose mission is to invest in people and ideas that are typically overlooked as vehicles of socioeconomic change.

SHE’s first initiative is to address women’s inability to afford menstrual pads, which can harm their health, education, productivity and dignity, according to Singerman. SHE is piloting this initiative in Rwanda and plans to scale its model to other countries.

Singerman is a gender and women’s studies major, and a chemistry minor. This past year, she learned how to do field research and write ethnographies in the course, “Ethnographies of Gender,” taught by Kristen Ghodsee, the John S. Osterweis Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies. For the class, Singerman wrote an ethnography examining masculinity in the Peter Buck Center for Health and Fitness. Other students looked at senior girls who date freshman boys, and the differences in students’ daytime dress and nighttime dress.

That class, along with a study abroad semester in Ghana where she noted the presence of many Western NGOs, inspired Singerman to look more closely at her own organization. She has a Surdna Foundation Undergraduate Research Fellowship from Bowdoin to work on her ethnography this summer. (Read more about SHE in the sidebar.)

Working for SHE
Sustainable Health Enterprises was founded by Elizabeth Scharpf, a Harvard Business School and Kennedy School of Government graduate. When Scharpf interned for the World Bank in Mozambique in 2005 and saw women’s loss of productivity during their periods, she was driven to help.

“Elizabeth noticed a lot of women missing school and work because they had their periods,” Singerman explained. They couldn’t afford Western-style maxi pads, and often resorted to using cumbersome materials such as rags, bark or mud.

Scharpf began experimenting with different local materials for pads, including banana leaves, cassava leaves and textile scraps, before settling on banana tree fibers as the most absorbent stuff. She worked with engineers at MIT and North Carolina State to design an easily replicable process to turn the fibers into eco-friendly, disposable menstrual pads.

For the past year, as SHE’s global intern, Singerman has developed a DIY technical guide on how to replicate the pads, and an online health and hygiene manual of best practices that will help demystify many of the menstruation taboos worldwide. “I love my work at SHE,” Singerman said. “I know I want to go into some type of women’s advocacy work eventually.”

Prof. Ghodsee, who is Singerman’s advisor, says Singerman’s close-up knowledge of the organization will help her project. “A well-written ethnography is the product of extended participant-observation, which means living the life that your subject population lives as authentically as possible. Lydia’s personal involvement with the NGO is an essential component of ethnographic research,” Ghodsee wrote in an email.

Singerman says she enjoys contextualizing what she learned from Ghodsee’s class in her current field research. This summer, she is observing, taking field notes, reading relevant literature and researching. Singerman is interning for SHE three days a week while based at Bowdoin this summer. SHE’s vice-president, CeCe Camacho, lives in Brunswick, while Scharpf is based in New York City, Singerman’s home city.

“This summer has allowed me to use a more critical eye when performing tasks as the SHE global intern and to take away valuable lessons for my future,” Singerman said.

The Surdna Foundation Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program supports students’ research projects under the direction of a faculty/staff member(s) who is independently interested in the area under study. The competitive fellowship is just one among many that Bowdoin College offers to qualified students to support summertime research, projects or internships.