Sunday 17th October 2021

Thursday, 17th January – Days for Girls

This has probably been the most exciting day of our wonderful visit so far.

For months now we have been preparing for taking our Days for Girls kits to the High Security Women’s Prison, which is part of the old prison I have run past in the morning during the last couple of years. It’s an old prison – a pretty scary looking place, to be honest.

One of my fictional introductions to Myanmar was via ‘The Lizard Cage’ by Karen Connelly, the story of Teza, once the most famous of all the political singer songwriters of his day and now consigned to solitary confinement in the most humanity-sapping of all Burmese prisons. The novel is simultaneously desperately sad and brutal and powerfully uplifting, a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit. However what it did not do was inspire confidence in the penal system.

More than a year ago, the wonderful Ian Boast (of Boastie Green Bag Travel, who organises groups visiting Cambodia) introduced me to and has been encouraging me to work with Days for Girls who provide sustainable feminine hygiene products for girls and women around the developing world. Over a period (sorry!) of many months we made contact with women in East Anglia who wanted to help, went to Portsmouth to meet our mentor to be trained, cascaded training sessions, got our Gold Standard award (thanks to the amazing Aaf Dawes) and brought 70 kits with us to Myanmar. Each of the kits contains: 2 Ziploc plastic bags (one in which to do the washing, the other to contain soiled items), two pairs of pants, one wash flannel, one small piece of soap, 2 waterproof shields*, 8 absorbent liners*. All of these are contained in a pretty, drawstring bag*. The starred items are the ones we make. None of the items look like they are sanitary products – they are bags to be proud of and can be used and washed over and over. They are made to last up to five years. I would like to mention here our mentor Sandra Sherwood, Suzy Nash and Chris Bird, whose son works in Myanmar, and her Rutland Team, who all generously sent us kit components.

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Adorable footage via Days for Girls Kitchat, of the irrepressible Mat Lucky showing off his knicker-folding expertise and photos of Joan and the Napier Team helping to pack the DfG bags in a hilarious, Myanmar beer-filled evening in our room..

For our women prisoners who, if they cannot buy what they need, use the stuffing from their mattresses or tear up their clothes, these bags will bring some comfort and dignity. My contacts in Pathein, the simply amazing Anne, her parishioner friend Catherine who has contacts within the prison, my young friend Kyu Kyu Hmwe and Assumpta from KMSS all did a short training session with Joan and me. We bought all the flannels and pants and soaps we needed. We had a hilarious knicker-folding and bag packing night with Mat perfecting the technique for us. We created 200 hygiene packs – 130 full packs with soap, comb, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste and sanitary towels and 70 without sanitary towels (for those who receive the DfG kits) and today we got the green light to take the whole lot to the prison. Catherine also suggested we take as many sachets of coffee as we could manage – it’s prison currency via which they can buy extra food, etc – and packs of instant noodles. We ascertained that there are five children under 5 years in the prison but were not able to find out gender and ages to be able to provide toys. Next time.

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Having received word, with an hour’s notice, that we were permitted to go to the prison we filled the back of KMSS’s truck with our goodies and set off the short distance to the main entrance of Pathein Prison. I knew I was not to be allowed to enter, as a foreigner, but had my camera and took a series of shots of our unloading, etc including one of the man running towards me telling me to stop! Fair enough. I loitered. And then to my astonishment I was beckoned to enter and taken past the women receiving visits at many windows, Porridge-style (an old 70s sitcom for those of us old enough to remember) and into the governor’s office. I was introduced to him and then to his depute and to some of the warders who work with the women. I explained, through Anne who translated beautifully as always, who and what the kits were for. I told them that Anne and Catherine and the two girls would be returning to train the 70 women who received kits and tell them a little about menstrual hygiene and how to use and care for them (on 25th January, once our government permission had been received). They were cordial and complimentary, asking for an additional 130 kits for the rest of the women. As we left, the duty guards were changing and we were treated to a ceremonial but hugely surprising and slightly giggle-inducing guard of honour salute. Back at the van, we leapt in and, much to Aung Thu’s amusement, I banged the side of the panelling and shouted, Go, go, go!

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After we had left Pathein, on 25th January, Anne and Catherine spoke to 70 women and told them how to use the kits. Only one child was there, a young baby who cried, and a male warder took him and rocked him while his mum heard about Days for Girls.

On my return visit in September we will take 130 kits back to the prison and KMSS would like us to try a small micro-enterprise experiment so we will bring flannelette and try to source PUL from China direct to Myanmar. Our attempts to find both in Pathein and in the Bogyoke Market in Yangon came to nothing. What we did buy was $250 worth of high-quality cotton which we will use in the UK to make our shields and bags. When I was in Kalaw, at an orphanage where lovely student Anna lives, there in the corridor, covered up, were three Singer sewing machines and a three spool overlocker. Oh wow, said I. Oh, none of us knows how to use them, said she!

Back at the Social Centre on the Thursday evening, we showed the Greatest Showman with a decent-sized audience appreciating its songs and finer points. No better lyrics for this day where we have tried to make the world a bit better for the marginalised and those in need.

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

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