Period Potential: In Conversation with Steph Shepherd
Last week, Knix participated in the incredibly important Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28th— a day to break the silence, smash period stigma and raise awareness for period health all across the globe. But the importance of this work isn’t just a one day acknowledgement. Periods never stop, and neither should menstrual health awareness.
Throughout the last few years, we’ve been lucky to work with Khana— a nonprofit on a mission to ensure everyone has access to products that help manage menstruation so they can stay in school. Recently we had the opportunity to sit down with Khana advisor, the amazing Steph Shepherd, to chat about all things Khana, her work in Uganda, and the future of menstrual equality. Meet Steph Shepherd.
Hi Steph, tell us about Khana!
Khana is a nonprofit on a mission to ensure every girl has the panties she needs to manage menstruation and stay in school. For the past several years, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) have been providing pads for students in rural Uganda, but most girls didn’t have underwear to actually hold those pads in place.
In religious regions, products that require insertion (think menstrual cups and tampons) violate the cultural concept of virginity and are therefore taboo. Without panties to hold pads in place, girls were continuing to miss up to one week of school every month, and eventually dropout altogether. Khana exists to fill the panty gap and make education for girls possible (especially during their periods).
How did you get involved with Khana? Why is it important to you?
I was first introduced to the concept of “period poverty” in 2017 when I read an essay from Meghan Markle on period poverty and breaking the stigma. It became very clear to me that as long as girls and women are unable to manage their monthly cycles, we would never close the gender gap. As a person with a period who firmly believes that everyone benefits when women have equal opportunity, I was desperate to get involved. Through a serendipitous series of events I was introduced to Khana’s founder, Shayna Fowler. After helping Khana launch on Kickstarter, Shayna asked me to become a board member. It’s some of the most fulfilling work I’ve ever been a part of.
How does menstrual hygiene affect a person’s overall health and wellness?
Let’s look at this specifically in the regions where Khana works. In Uganda, underwear is an expensive import often regarded as a luxury good rather than a necessity (especially when you’re choosing between buying underwear or buying food). Some folks sell used underwear at the markets, which causes severe discomfort and even vaginal infections (though the government is trying to stop this). In areas like Kagadi, which is one of the poorest regions in all of Uganda, girls have shared that they use plastic bags, old bed sheets, and even mud and leaves to try and stop the bleeding. Ultimately, menstrual hygiene enables girls to overcome obstacles to their health and freedom— such as gender-related violence, child marriage, and school dropout.
Tell us a bit about your trip to Uganda, and the work you did there! What’s one of the biggest things you learned?
I went to Uganda with Khana to better understand the need for and impact of panties. In Kyaka (pronounced Chaka), our Khana team did a panty distribution alongside our pad partners, Days for Girls. Every distribution includes locally-led sex education, because it’s critical that girls learn scientifically accurate information about their bodies from folks who look like them, speak their language, and understand their religious and cultural background.
At the end of the Kyaka distribution, the head teacher raised her hand in tears. She explained that she’d been taught that the vagina had to be cleaned during menstruation by inserting two fingers to remove dirt. In reality, the vagina is self-cleaning and her method had the potential to cause severe infection. The head teacher wondered how many of her students had infections because of what she taught them, and if they would go on to tell their classmates, friends, and daughters the same thing.
I knew that talking about menstruation was taboo, but I was not prepared for the long-term effects that incorrect information could have on generations of people with periods. The work we’re doing with Khana and Days for Girls is not just idealistic, it’s absolutely necessary.
What are your hopes for the future of menstrual health?
I believe period poverty can be eradicated within my lifetime. Every person with a period deserves to have access to the education, products, and support they need to make safe and dignified decisions about their bodies. I also hope to see significantly more innovation in the menstrual health space /femtech space— with products funded by women and men.
What are some ways we can help advocate for menstrual health equality?
I think the first step is learning as much as you can about period poverty. Here are some incredible (and free) resources--
As a nonprofit, Khana’s work is entirely funded by donations. It costs $4 to provide a Khana Kit (panties, soap, menstruation education) to a girl in need. Give once or monthly online.