Postdoctoral Researcher Inspires Sanitary Towel Project

While conducting investigations into the movement of southern ground-hornbills in KwaZulu-Natal, a UKZN postdoctoral researcher became aware of the lack of toilet and sanitary provisions in schools and homes in the area, prompting her to launch a project to ease the plight of many young South African women.

The researcher is Dr Yvette Ehlers Smith of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) – National Research Foundation (NRF) Centre in Indigenous Knowledge Systems (CIKS) and the School of Life Sciences .

She attended the second National Geographic Explorers Festival held in London from 7-12 February. The festival offered participants an opportunity to connect with fellow explorers, participate in a Science-telling Boot camp, share their work on stage, and hear from renowned National Geographic explorers. It also guided explorers on how best to communicate their work, interact with colleagues from across Europe and Africa, and deliver presentations.

Participants heard from experts about innovations, insights and solutions needed to create a planet in balance.

Ehlers Smith attended as a sponsored guest of National Geographic, which funded the research she is undertaking on southern ground-hornbills outside protected areas in KwaZulu-Natal. Her work investigates human dimensions and how cultural beliefs could influence a species’ persistence in an area, while also observing the movement of ground-hornbills using satellite telemetry to observe how they navigate human dominated landscapes.

Three other PhD students, Ms Thobeka Gumede, Ms Samke Ngcobo and Ms Mbalenhle Sosibo are also attached to the project.

It also became known at the conference that while conducting interviews for her ground hornbill research with inhabitants of rural areas, Ehlers Smith became acutely aware of another issue – the lack of ablutions and sanitary facilities at schools and homes she visited.

She questioned women and girls in these areas about how they handled their monthly menstrual periods without facilities or the means to dispose of sanitary towels.

Recognising the need for sustainable, reusable sanitary towels to provide an environmentally friendly, dignified and safe alternative to materials used currently, Ehlers Smith launched the Safe & San project alongside her hornbill research.

Through this project, she has made the call for the donation of reusable sanitary towels and new underwear in the hope that women in these areas could also one day be empowered to make their own items and even potentially develop businesses from the venture.

Ehlers Smith hopes to visit communities involved in her research to gain not only feedback on the research, but also the donated items.

For those wishing to donate, Ehlers Smith has arranged boxes on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus, while donations can be sent care of Professor Colleen Downs, the South African Research Chair in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, whose office is on campus.

Previous research by Ehlers Smith has been on the impact of changing land use on biodiversity, particularly of mammals. She was featured on the TV show 50/50 discussing the blue duiker as it featured in her PhD research. She hopes her work will inspire people to take action in preserving dwindling habitats home to a multitude of species.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied by Mbalenhle Sosibo and Yvette Ehlers Smith