Half a world away from Atlanta, Lorrie Lynn King had a revelation.
It was late 2010. She was in India, having just travelled from Nepal on a mission to help start a nonprofit education foundation. She had spent her career doing aid work around the world and was familiar with the kinds of complications she would find.
The previous dozen or so schools she had visited reported the same problems: teachers weren’t being paid, students didn’t have uniforms or supplies, and, even more, they needed running water or private toilets so that students wouldn’t be embarrassed to ask to go to the bathroom.
But, sitting at the Zilla Parishad High School in India, King encountered a complaint she hadn’t heard before. In a room full of men, in a country where many of the head teachers at schools are men, a woman stood up.
“She busted out, in the middle of the room with all these guys, and said, ‘Our girls are missing school each month when they are having their menstruation,’” King said.
She was floored. King asked, why are they missing school? Is it access to supplies? Is it a taboo? No, the woman replied. It was too expensive at 20 rupees per pack of sanitary pads.
“I did the math in my head, at the time the exchange rate was such that 20 rupees equaled 50 cents,” King said.
She rounded up the money in her pockets, solicited donations from her translator and driver, and thrust them at the teacher, telling her to do something, anything.
“Make sure they stay in school, get them pads, get them whatever they need,” she recalls saying. She called it the “Western response”–to throw money at the problem–but left with a newfound mission.
She began asking about girls missing school because of their menstruation at other schools she visited. At every one, she was met with the same reaction: Of course they’re missing school, it’s a problem and everyone knows it.
“Imagine if you started your period–the global average age is 12 years old–so you had four years left of school if you were a girl in India,” King said. Compulsory education there for girls ends at age 16. “But then, you missed a week of school every month for the next four years. You’ve just missed a quarter of the education you’re ever going to get. It was unconscionable to me.”
After finishing the field surveys, King returned to Atlanta and met with her boss. She said she was sure she’d stumbled upon issue his new foundation could make a real difference in.
“He wrinkled up his nose at me and said, ‘That’s a girl’s issue. That has nothing to do with education; you got totally sidetracked,’” she said.
Soon, she quit what she described as the highest-paying job of her career and was puzzled about how to help girls around the world stuck at home each month due to a natural bodily process.
“Turns out it’s not as simple as buying a pad and throwing a pad at it. You’ve got to start looking at infrastructure,” King said, “We’re talking about schools that didn’t even have clean water.”
Many girls were using rags, plant leaves or ash wrapped in cloth. Many didn’t have underwear. Menstrual cups and reusable pads were almost out of the question, due to lack of access to hot water, soap and safe places to store them.
King realized they had to start from the ground up. Men in the community could get behind the idea of improved sanitation for the whole community, so a well would be an easy sell. Only 34 percent of people in India have access to hygienic water, according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF. Furthermore, King said, once a community takes ownership of one basic initiative, like sanitation, they are more likely to embrace other initiatives, like girls’ menstruation education.
“Even in a system where you have arranged marriage and patriarchy, an educated girl is more ‘marketable,’ so you can engage the men on that,” King said.
In the spring of 2011, King and some of her friends got together and developed what would become 50 Cents. Period.” A foundation that would to bring sanitation and menstrual hygiene awareness to rural areas around the world. The foundation is so named because of the simple cost of facilitating a month’s supply of sanitary pads for a girl in India, where the idea first started.
In 2014, the organization is three years old and growing. King has been welcomed back to ZPHS with open arms, and said the sanitation and hygiene system is working. Earlier in May, King got an email from Child Nepal, 50 Cents. Period’s partner with the school and in the region–saying that school absenteeism by the girls has decreased by 95 percent. The school and community have agreed to shoulder 25 percent of the costs leaving 50 Cents. Period to cover the remaining 75 percent. In international nonprofit work, King said, partial or total community ownership is the ultimate goal.
Here in DeKalb, King works with the refugee community, hosting Women’s Circle events where recent arrivals get basic health screenings, many for the first times in their lives. She reports that 100 percent of refugee women who have attended Women’s Circle have received follow-up care from a physician. She recently spoke at a medical conference about the kinds of unique gynecological issues refugee women might face such as never having a comprehensive gynecological exam, or resistance to talking with male doctors or nurses.
King was also named the first global ambassador for World Menstrual Hygiene Day, a campaign started by WASH United, a group that promotes positive messages encouraging hygiene in the developing world. Through the role, King said, she hopes to bridge the gaps that sometimes exist between nonprofits and encourage resource sharing.
From an early age, King said, she was interested in standing up for a cause. The descendant of generations of health workers and growing up in Oregon, shaped her world view. Her first experience overseas, landing in Kenya to serve with a friend at a rural clinic, brought her to tears, she said.
“It’s a visceral reaction,” King said. “When I perceive an injustice is being done, I just want to beat somebody down.”
This article originally appeared in The Champion Newspaper.