By: Sang Kromah
March is Women’s History Month, and although it is great to focus on the significant efforts women have made in the past, it is also necessary to give people their flowers while they’re still alive. In addition to celebrating historically significant women, Project GirlSpire endeavors to celebrate the accomplishments, dedication, and talents of today’s women.
I’m all about women empowering girls to be the best versions of themselves, so when I heard about Pad4Girls, a program that is keeping Liberian girls in school even during their periods, I wanted to get to know the woman behind the initiative.
Meet Naomi Tulay-Solanke, a nurse, a wife, a mother of three, and the founder of Community Health Initiative (CHI), a Liberian-based nonprofit organization. The primary focus of CHI is to provide free health care services to the underserved population of Liberia as well as taking these services to some of Liberia’s hardest communities to reach.
Sang Kromah (SK): Liberia has a rich cultural history. Tell us about your cultural background (county of origin, ethnicity, languages you speak)?
Naomi Tulay-Solanke (NTS): I originally hail from Lofa County; one of Liberia’s 15 counties. Lofa County is located in the northwestern part of Liberia and well known as the bread basket of Liberia. It is the fourth most populated political subdivision in Liberia. Born in Voinjama, the capital city of Lofa, I am the 13th of 16 siblings. I am of the Gbandi and Mandingo ethnic tribes in Liberia, but due to the instability caused by the civil crisis, I was unable to learn both mother tongues as I had my cognitive years outside Lofa and Liberia, as a refugee.
SK: Who are the women who inspired you most when you were growing up?
NTS: I have always been inspired by my mother. She knew she could face dangers and could have lost her life; but for the future of us children, resorted to becoming a petty trader to keep us in school during the civil crisis when our dad was unemployed. She adapted readily to different situations and taught life lessons in caring for people. She believes anything can be achieved and realized, if the will power, focus and determination to push ahead are there. Her life example reflects the value of adaptability, industriousness and compassion and gives me the strength every day to serve my community to make this world a better place.
I still have fond memories of one of my aunts–my dad’s oldest sister–who was always willing to give back to people in need, especially to women. Her regular storytelling for only females helped us to understand ourselves as well as our values as teenagers. Today, as I work with adolescent females, I am buoyed by her love for women and this reflection helps me to serve as a mentor to young girls.
SK: What fictional female character from a book, film, or television series do you identify with the most and why? Is the character anything like you?
NTS: Ever since her starring performance in the drama film, “Girl, Interrupted”, I have identified with Angelina Jolie-Pitt. Her humanitarian side to the work she does further drew me closer to following her and align with who I strive to be: a person who works tirelessly and gives out the best in service to humanity. For me, the more I think of her, the more I stay attuned to my life goals of helping and giving back to my community and country.
SK: Were you in Liberia for any of the Civil War? If so, how has women’s rights evolved since then?
NTS: Yes, I was in Liberia for 1990 and 2003. Looking back and reflecting on the pre-war years to that of the post war years, I can rightly say that we have made considerable strides in addressing the issues affecting women and girls. The ascendancy of Africa’s first female president in Liberia created leverage for key policies such as the National Gender Policy, as well as the free and compulsory primary education to positively impact women’s right and access to education. Yet still, there still remains much work in the implementation of these policies as change is a process and not an event. There are many prospects for women’s right.
SK: What is the biggest issue that girls face in Liberia?
NTS: I strongly believe one of the biggest issues facing girls in Liberia is access to sexual reproductive health rights and services. This can be seen in the considerable increase in the number of teenage pregnancies, high maternal mortality death rates, and rise in gender based violence. This is leading to an increase in female’s drop-out rate in secondary schools, which means that a growing number of girls are less likely to acquire quality education.
SK: You are the founder of Community Healthcare Initiative (CHI), and as an organization that was active during Liberia’s Ebola epidemic, how has Liberia’s healthcare sector changed since then?
NTS: Reflecting on CHI’s role during Liberia’s Ebola epidemic, it is clear that the Ebola Virus Disease exposed the weak healthcare system in Liberia and even pointed to the non-existence of any health related systems in rural areas. Given the external support and interventions, as well as active participation of community based organizations like CHI, we have seen a considerable push by government since the end of the outbreak to focus more on building a resilient healthcare structure. Additionally, they have fully recognized the important role of the community in building a robust healthcare sector.
SK: What is Pad4Girls and why is this program necessary in Liberia?
NTS: Pad4Girls are made from local or reusable textiles and provide effective protection for 12+ months (menstrual cycles), making them a cost-effective and eco-friendly solution. Designed using an “all-in-one” pad that buttons securely into a pair of underwear and folds conveniently for easy storage before washing after use. CHI’s Pad4Girls are addressing girls’ and women’s menstrual management needs to help increase female retention in school, improve their health, and contribute to their communities.
The importance of this innovation cannot be over-emphasized. Just imagine, a girl absent from school due to menstruation for four days of every 28 day cycle loses minimum learning days, the equivalent to two and a half weeks of learning every school term. This means that many girls in slums and under-privileged communities are more likely to skip school when they have their periods or simply drop out completely. Worst yet, the natural cycle of menstruation has made the production of sanitary pads a viable for-profit business and hence increase the price for pads. Pad4Girls are reusable textiles and provide effective protection for 12+ months (menstrual cycles), making them cost-effective for all girls, while empowering women cooperatives to solve the problems affecting women and girls.
SK: If you could have the career of any woman in the world, who would it be and why?
NTS: I would choose the vibrant career of Mrs. Korto Williams, Country Director of ActionAid Liberia’s country office. Having worked with her for the last year, I have gained an in-depth understanding and adopted a contrast approach to the issues affecting women’s rights. Her imbued passion for the work she does and the people she serves have helped me to put the community at the heart of our solutions. Her humble disposition means she relates to people, irrespective of their status, background, and location. I just can’t think of anyone that is so exemplary and displays consummate professionalism at all time by striving to practice exactly what she preaches.
SK: What is your wish for girls and women, living in Liberia?
NTS: Every girl in Liberia has a vision for her future and the world she lives in. It is my wish that she’s afforded the right opportunity to achieve her dreams and contribute manfully to the society.
For more information on CHI, please visit their Facebook page.
If you’re interested in being featured, contact Sang at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re interested in joining the Project GirlSpire team, contact our Editor-in-Chief, Tina Lu at email@example.com.