For many girls living in the developing world, one of life’s most natural occurrences leads to shame, suffering and absence from school for up to five days per month.
Menstruation, a monthly occurrence for more than 300 million women and girls around the world, presents a huge challenge in places like Tanzania, where sanitary products are mostly available to women and girls of privilege. Those who can’t afford them often turn to unhealthy and extreme practices, using an unclean cloth to absorb their flow (increasing the risk of illness and infection) or engaging in dangerous practices (such as prostitution) to earn money to buy the products.
Not to mention, many women and girls simply remove themselves from society during their cycles, missing out on work, education and other opportunities.
“This is a huge challenge facing young girls,” said Laura Chauvin, the CEO of Sustainable Philanthropy Partners who has targeted her efforts through the years in East Africa. “It’s dignity at the simplest, most basic human level.”
Enter the unique leadership of Dwight Howard—with assistance from Chauvin, his D12 Foundation director—who’s been a champion for girls in Tanzania, where he first went for vacation. In the summer of 2011, he announced a dormitory he would build for them to ensure their safety and education, therefore accelerating school attendance. The first dormitory was called Kipok and it opened in 2012 for 150 girls in Monduli. Then he opened a second one called Lunguya this past October for 125 girls in Shinyanga.
The biggest threats to the girls continue to be sexual violence and not having the right guidance from their parents, especially when it comes to education, according to Chauvin. Instead, the girls’ priorities are more tied to motherly chores or collecting water from the nearby wells. Other danger comes from biking or walking through the wilderness to get to school—for some, 15 miles.
As Howard continued his outreach in the region, he couldn’t believe the scope of the problems from something so simple as not having a clean pad.
“For a lot of the girls in these schools, once they go through their cycles, [the situation] is shunned upon,” he told the NBPA. “And they’re afraid to go to school because they get talked about.”
That led to Howard’s back-to-school program last July at Kipok, where he delivered industrial sewing machines, yards of waterproof fabric and a pattern for a washable sanitary pad. With the help of a local women’s workshop, more than 1,000 reusable pads were made for the girls in the dormitories.
The girls’ reactions and the excitement of the local makers got Howard and Chauvin thinking, How could we bring this basic human dignity to even more girls? After doing research, they discovered the Mumbai-based Aakar Innovations, which developed the world’s only 100 percent compostable and biodegradable sanitary pad, produced in simple, local workshops.
And now, coming in August, Aakar Innovations’ technology will be arriving in Tanzania.
Thanks to Howard’s financial support and a matching grant from the NBPA Foundation, Worldserve International—a community leader in Tanzania for more than 20 years—will be launching a production facility in Arusha, which will manufacture up to 2,500 pads per day at a fraction of the price of a traditional store-bought product.
Adapting the system for Tanzania by using pulverized banana stems (a plentiful, but often wasted agricultural product), the environmentally-friendly pads will be made, sanitized and wrapped for distribution, and then provided to the girls. The absorbent banana fiber means the pads will ultimately disintegrate, adding to the product’s value given the lack of hygienic disposal options in East Africa.
The pilot project will involve Howard employing about a dozen women in the workshop, and Aakar will train them on how to make the pads. More women will serve as product representatives, distributing the pads for nominal cost and providing supplementary materials on health and hygiene to their peers. And the girls receiving the products will also get important wellness information. Currently, there is no health class of any kind in Tanzania, according to Chauvin.
The pad will be called “Uhuru,” which means “freedom” in Swahili.
“If our pilot is successful, we hope to engage others so that tens of thousands of girls will be positively affected,” Chauvin said.
To say thank you for all of his contributions—including clothes, books and school supplies—the girls send Howard videos and pictures. Also, a portrait of him in his former Hawks uniform, painted by a local artist grateful for his work, hangs in a place of honor at Kipok.
“I can’t say enough great things about the girls—how they perceive everything, how they send me messages,” he said. “Just all the little stuff that they do is just great.”
“It’s really amazing to them that somebody like Dwight continues to have an interest in them,” Chauvin said.
With more girls in the dormitories and more receiving the pads, lives will be changed forever. Howard is encouraged to know that with more educated girls, who will one day be the main caretakers of their families, their knowledge will spread to future generations. While primary school is accessible in Tanzania, Chauvin said out of 100 kids, only about five girls will go on to secondary school. Their life hurdles and distractions prevent many from going to school and performing well on a proficiency exam that’s required for middle school.
“The girls are the ones who really get everything started,” said Howard, who has five children—three sons and two daughters. “When we teach these girls, that’s where it starts. Then we have early childhood literacy.”
Africa to Atlanta
Howard said he would “love” to one day send the girls to schools in Atlanta, his hometown, so they can pursue their college dreams. Overall, in his first and only season back in Atlanta, Howard was relentless in the realms of early childhood education and literacy, as well as youth mentoring and leadership development. Those are his focuses in his U.S.-based community work. Even with his departure to Charlotte, he’s still continuing his efforts at home.
“You have to start them young,” he said. “If you wait too late, it’s really hard for them. The biggest part that I want to do for Atlanta is just really tie the community together, just really bring our community and our kids and all the adults together as one. And basketball serves a big part of that, just getting in the community and talking to the kids, and just trying to help them strive to be the best that they can be. And so far these kids have done an unbelievable job with everything. I’m very proud of those kids, just all the work that they put in.”
With the Hawks, Howard worked with the Atlanta Public Schools and local organizations, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta, to bring a different group of 25 standout students to each of the team’s weekend and holiday games. That totaled 750 kids for about 30 games.
“Encouraging leadership, scholarship and service to kids are among my key goals in my work in Atlanta off the court,” he said. “I’m definitely looking forward to being out there more in the community, because the fans have really supported me no matter how the season has gone.”
As a spokesperson for Cartoon Network’s “Stop Bullying Speak Up” program, Howard encouraged kids in Atlanta and nationwide to take an anti-bullying pledge, and he shared his thoughts on the importance of leadership. And he created a video about mentoring with the National Mentoring Resource Center (see below). He also continued his financial support for DonorsChoose.org, matching local donors’ gifts during the non-profit organization’s one-day #BestSchoolDay campaign. This was the second straight year that Howard joined other athletes and celebrities, including actresses Anna Kendrick and Gwyneth Paltrow, to fund educators’ classroom needs.
“We sent supplies, we sent books, we sent iPads,” he said. “A lot of people think that the supplies that the teachers have the school provides them, but mostly the teachers do it themselves. And they spend a lot of money to provide for these kids that don’t have [the supplies]. So we all came together to help. I really enjoyed doing what I did and it really got the community going. A lot of the students were sending me letters, and a lot of the teachers were actually sending me letters thanking me for helping the students out.”
A main aspect of Howard’s off-the-court work that carries over to all of his events is literacy and providing books, and he always tries to find time to read to kids. With his trademark smile and entertaining ways, he’s a very animated and interactive storyteller. He has a wide range of pitches and sound effects when he reads different words and poses questions to kids from a book to keep them engaged.
Occasionally, he popped in a class taught by one of his sisters, Tashanda, who works at Atlanta’s Harper-Archer Middle School. Or he’ll make a lasting impression through a simple phone call when she’s in the classroom.
“These kids have come a long way and they’re real proud, and they always ask my sister, ‘Hey, can I talk to your brother?'” he said. “So she’s calling me all the time for me to talk to her students just about life. And I just tell them to be good in school. And actually after talking to some of those kids, their mindsets changed and their attitudes changed.”
Leaning on his reading passion, Howard teamed up with Hands On Atlanta, which instituted an early childhood in-classroom reading program, to train adults in the technique of “impactful reading.” Working with Hands On Atlanta, the city’s largest volunteer organization, he now has 50 adult volunteers in the city.
The idea to engage adults was something that Howard learned while working with the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, during his time with the Rockets. Building on their connection, he and the former first lady speak with authors and publishers to make quality books accessible to underprivileged children in Atlanta and across the country.
Some of the titles—which included more than 300 distributed to the YMCA of Metro Atlanta and Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta—range from stories about Martin Luther King Jr.’s early activism to other themes of acceptance to family reads, such as The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition.
More recently, Howard orchestrated a unique opportunity between the Hawks’ “Check It Out Reading Challenge” and the movie Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul. After meeting the cast filming in Atlanta, Howard invited them to a Hawks game, where he developed a friendship with Diary book author Jeff Kinney. That led the Hawks center to host an Atlanta screening of the movie in mid-May for 1,000 kids, who submitted videos for the “Reading Challenge” to share what they’re reading.
“The Wimpy Kid books are fun to read and really if a kid enjoys reading, that makes learning everything easier,” Howard said. “A kid who likes reading is a kid who’ll be successful.”
Topping off Howard’s first season back in Atlanta was the retiring of his high school jersey at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy.
“It’s a great honor,” he said. “And I’m the first one in my school to ever have a jersey retired, so it’s a pretty cool accomplishment. And on the court, every night for me, every home game was probably like the best for me. Why? Just hearing my name and hearing [the PA announcer] say, ‘Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy.’ That’s a big honor.”
So what’s next for Howard?
Through his work with Performance-based Standards, which assists juvenile justice agencies and facilities with their operations, he’ll speak to kids at a juvenile justice center in Atlanta this summer. He visited his first one last year in Oklahoma City. And he’s collaborating with the Muhammad Ali Center to deploy a “Creating Your Future” curriculum for youth mentors to use in Atlanta this upcoming school year. While he was in Houston, he had a similar curriculum that draws inspiration from the famous boxer’s hard work, core values and sticking to a plan despite facing challenges.
“I’m always thinking about ways that I can do better, and be better for the community. It’s just always me,” he said. “Where I’m able to impact the youth on any level, whether it be through early childhood literacy or helping kids get in school or just spending time with the kids, I enjoy doing stuff like that.”
Howard, the biggest and brightest kid of them all.
“It’s bringing them together and letting them see that it’s bigger than basketball,” he said.