Freweini Mebrahtu has just been named the 2019 CNN Hero of the Year. Mebrahtu has dedicated her life to keeping girls in school by designing a reusable menstrual pad and reducing period stigma, which causes as many as half of the girls in rural Ethiopia to miss school.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Mebrahtu said when receiving the award. “I am so humbled and grateful for CNN … this is for all the girls and women everywhere. Dignity for all.”
Dignity for girls is the most important reason for Mebrahtu’s work. Some girls even drop out of school because of period shame, which can have a devastating effect on their education and the rest of their lives. Mebrahtu was chosen by online voters as the 2019 CNN Hero of the Year award from among the Top 10 CNN Heroes finalists.
Mebrahtu is from Ethiopia, but she came to the US to study chemical engineering. She designed and patented a reusable menstrual pad in 2005, and now her factory in Ethiopia produces 750,000 units every year. Nearly 800,000 girls and women have benefited from her work.
“I remembered (hearing) that it’s actually a curse to have a period … or that it meant I am ready to be married, or (that) I’m being bad,” Mebrahtu told CNN.
More than 80% of the pads she manufactures are sold to non-governmental organizations that distribute them for free. Mebrahtu has also collaborated with the nonprofit Dignity Period to end the stigma by speaking at schools. She wants to teach girls and boys alike that menstruation is natural, not shameful.
“The whole goal was not only making the pads, but also attacking the cultural baggage to it,” Mehbratu said.
Dignity Period has distributed more than 150,000 free menstrual hygiene kits purchased from Mebrahtu’s factory — and data shows that the schools they visited have had a 24% increase in attendance among girls.
As the 2019 CNN Hero of the Year, Mebrahtu will receive $100,000 to expand her work, which she was presented with at the CNN Hero of the Year Gala on Sunday. All of the top 10 CNN Heroes for 2019 were honored, as well, and will receive a $10,000 cash award.
If you know someone who is making the world a better place, you can nominate them as a 2020 CNN Hero at CNNHeroes.com. If you would like to support Mebrahtu’s work or any of the CNN Heroes’ nonprofit organizations, you can also make a donation via CNNHeroes.com. All donations made by January 2, 2020, will be matched by Subaru for up to $50,000 per Hero.