Meet Ella. Ella is a University of Bristol student,currently studying Spanish and Russian on her year abroad in Spain. Ella is also known for her humanitarian work in areas such as Lesbos and for founding the Pachamama Project. Pachamama, being the goddess of fertility, is an important charity that works to donate reusable period pads to refugees in areas of crises to tackle Period Poverty. Winner of @the_happy_broadcast ‘s ‘Awesome Person of the Week’ in December 2021, Ella is a pretty amazing young woman. I was fortunate enough to interview her last week with some questions of my own.
Starting with a quick summary of the pad donation process: ‘We provide the pattern, all the details and how to source materials for free, or buy some materials where needed. Our volunteers make the pads, send them to us, we pack them up and ship them around the world. We have ambassadors in various places: Bristol, the US, Italy, France, our HQ is in Essex (where Ella grew up). People make pads all around the world and then send them to the ambassadors. The ambassadorspartner with organisations on the ground in humanitarian crises who already have that trusted relationship with the beneficiaries, with the refugee women that we work with. We then send them directly to these people to do the distributions’
In a world of multiple crises; the major humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, bouncing off the back of a global pandemic, peppered by long term unsettlement in Afghanistan, it must be hard for Ella to prioritise where exactly these pads should be sent to. I asked how she decided the pads’ locations and how she firstly established those connections.
‘Really, people have come to us. Initially, we partnered with an organisation in Lesbos, Greece. I’d heard about the crisis in Lesbos in general from the European refugee crisis as its very close to Turkey. I initially contacted an organisation there, and we did atrial partnership back in October 2020, after we had just started. Then, the moment the media took the project and it went on the BBC, we had people come tous which is the best thing possible – It’s people hearing about it and going ‘the people I work with really need that’ and not having to second guess where it’s going. The people who really really need it approach us and we talk to them, have lengthy meetings, and if it looks like it could work we’ll sort a shipment.
Ella launched the Pachamama Project in the first lockdown of the pandemic. As many of us picked up hobbies or started businesses, I wondered if she had any expectations for this project, or if it was just an incentive she picked up thinking it might do some good.
‘I had few expectations. I love the idea of it becoming something. I thought, ‘I’ve got time right now, and we can get lots of people doing it’ and it really did start off as me, my mum and my best friend. None of us knew how to sew! We had to borrow machines and look up on Youtube how to thread a sewing machine. I quickly realised how big it could be, because we had so much time! At that time, so many people were learning to sew and making masks for the NHS. I got my laptop and started contacting everyone I could think of. I was contacting university societies, Facebook groups, schools, craft groups. We now have 15,000 volunteers so it has escalated via the media and outreach. Which feels really good in terms of situations such as now, with the situation in Ukraine. When you’ve worked with refugees you know first-hand the impact of it. It’s such a crisis moment, I felt helpless when it all first happened. I wanted to be useful. So to know we have this big community of people in the same boat, desperate for help it means in times like this we can do something, even if its minimal. We could have an impact rather than just sitting at home watching the news. In August, when the Taliban took over, I remember being so drained. And its physical as well, you get physically hit by it. I have a lot of friends in Afghanistan with family chats there so it was very intense. This is reminiscent ofthat for me.’
In times like these, where your phone is swarmed by BBC updates informing us of how things are escalating from bad to worse for people facing daily warfare, it is sometimes hard to establish where to channel your focus. I asked what made her chooseperiod poverty in the first place.
‘Most people I speak to don’t actually know what it is, and I have to explain it to them. That feels normal to me, when I meet the average Joe who doesn’t know about it. But I meet people in that sector who still have no idea. I’ve worked and lived in lesbos and Greece for 9 months and everyone who I met there whose working in the humanitarian sector did not know the term. When you tell them they’re like ‘oh, of course!’, but it’s not something that’s spoken about around the kitchen table because its taboo.’
Ella went on to explain, this can’t just be an issue we leave for Feminists to tackle, or the people it is affecting directly, ‘It doesn’t have to happen to you to matter to you. You may be in a privileged position that you’re not in that situation, you may be a cis man and you don’t have to deal with it. But I think in the same way, I’m not homeless but I care about the fact that people are living on the street. Everyone should care about period poverty.
The idea that someone living in a refugee camp,where they’re struggling to even get food on the table,would have to choose between food or period productsis crazy. We’ve had women who have said, ‘I had to cut up my kid’s clothes which were perfectly usable to use as period products as I had nothing’, and what that meant as a mother, the shame of that. I also just think it’s often not on people’s priority lists, as its not known about. People often put food and shelter at the top of the list and period poverty can fall by the wayside. Having period poverty actually means you cannot do anything, you cannot leave your room, you can’t go to your legal appointment – the biggest moment in your imminent future in terms of getting your life set up and you can’t go! It can be as simple as that. Let alonebeing on a dingy or in a lorry and getting your period,the trauma of that, on top of everything else. That’s why I think it’s an important thing as it’s so traumatic and people don’t know anything about it.’
I wondered, when speaking about period poverty, if Ella ever found issues in getting through to the older generations. Quite often a comment about a period is met with a cringing face or derogatory comments.
‘No, it is surprising because I always thought I would. Apart from the rogue Facebook comment, we have had only positive feedback. The thing is whether you’re a young or old women, you know what it’s like to have a period. Everyone can recognise how awful that is. The sewing communities in general are very kind. I always say the sewers are the unsung heroes. We don’t have any idea what is going on behind closed doors with those sewers, they pretty much saved the NHS. They made extra scrubs and PPE when we didn’t have enough, these groups are constantly making toys for kids hospitals and blankets to be sent around the world, it is really amazing. If you’re a sewer and you’re in those communities, nothing like this is going to freak you out. The ones who are like that don’t want to talk about periods in general so just leave it entirely.’
Is this something you want to continue working towards in the future, what are your upcoming plans for the Pachamama Project?
‘It’s become an extension of myself, it’s not going anywhere. I feel it’s too part of me now. However, I don’t think it will be the only thing I do. I don’t think I’m going to graduate and then move on, but I also don’t think I’ll commit myself to ‘I am Pachamama – that’s it’. It will be more like an activist role. I’m heading in the direction of talking about period poverty, and refugee issues and situations in Afghanistan, and just general humanitarian issues that feel really important to me. Watching people cling to plains in August, I thought everyone in the world knew about what was going on, because I was so invested in it, because I was reading about it so much. And then I’ve had people online thanking me for sharing the food projects we do in Afghanistan, as they had no awareness of it. It just shows how important it is for people on every level, the industry, the media, on every level of society we need to be bringing these issues to light. More and more, I’m heading into the communicating role, it just feels really important to connect people. So often I meet really kind, generous, lovely people that will still say things about refugees that make me feel uncomfortable. Like, [regarding the Ukrainian crisis] ‘how awful, they’re European! This is not Syria, this isn’t Afghanistan!’. Some-how Afghanistan appear less deserving of our kindness and our spare rooms because they dress slightly differently or have a different colour to their skin. My friends from those places have the same hopes and dreams, they love doing the same stuff like reading and watching Netflix, and making friends, they’re the same as us. Somehow there’s this disconnect between kind people who would see someone on the street and pick them up if they fell down, but wouldn’t want to help people because of the colour of their skin. It’s nothing to do with their kindness, it’s the information they’re getting. If they got more human information the world would be a better place.
It’s been my goal since I started the project, like DofE, I want there to be the ‘pach-club’. I think that the impact it can have among young people is exponential. I ran a group in Lesbos in Greece, and twice a week we’d go in and refugee women living in the camp could come and make pads. We’d then sell them on a donation basis for local people to earn some money. There were 3 teenage girls who were coming in, they were always in the centre and I got to know them quite well. When I first told them what I do and told them about period products they were in hysterics. The fact I was saying period was like, ‘what?!’ they could not get their head around that. They were screaming, they were waving the pads and saying ‘that’s disgusting’. They were 3 young, Muslim girls, who hadn’t really had the opportunity to speak about periods before. I think I took on a big sister role to them. I offered for them to ask any questions and we had a long chat about periods, sexual health and contraception, that kind of stuff. I think it was the first time they had been listened to and were able to speak about that stuff without judgement. Three weeks later, one of the girls came to me and said ‘Can you teach me how to make the pads’ - she wanted to learn how to make them. ‘I think this would be really helpful for my mum and sister, and when I start my period I can use them as well’. To go from being shocked and shrilling at the idea, to being comfortable enough to ask that question. If that can happen in the middle of a refugee crisis - people who are living in Cannes and unsettled, teenagers who couldn’t speak about periods - What it can do in the UK where it’s not as taboo is insane. We could get people talking about period poverty everywhere in a way that’s non-confrontational and organic, and then if they’re in that situation themselves they can feel comfortable to do that and make their own.
Companies have recently got more behind incentives to de-stigmatise periods. You may have seen the recent Always advert that confronts the viewer with the image of a pad, discouraging the idea of it being an alien product. ‘In a culture where its more normalised, its off the scale of what we could do for the de-stigmatisation of period.’
Currently studying in Spain, Ella is still juggling this humanitarian crisis with her assessments. ‘I’m very lucky in that I have a very supportive family. I’m juggling a lot. I am studying all the time and have 3 projects (Pachamama and 2 others), it is a lot of stuff, but it feels like what I’m meant to be doing. It doesn’t matter about missing something social if I know about the impact in what I do will happen. It’s a balance, but I’ve had to learn I need to take days off. I am very lucky that my mum has basically become my partner in crime. I made her a director probably about 6 months after I started the project when it really started to kick off, as it became clear I wasn’t going to be able to do it alone. She’s basically manned the HQ, she does all the packing and sending and shipping. That really helps because otherwise I don’t know what I’d do to be honest. I couldn’t be studying here in Spain. When you run your own organisation, and it’s not just with this, anyone with a business, if you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done and you have to live like that. but I wouldn’t take it back, because what its turned my life into, and the amount of people we’ve been able to help.’
On International Women’s Day, The Pachamama Project thanked some of the amazing women who make the project what it is. If you are a keen sewer, this one may be for you. ‘Literally anyone with free time and a sewing machine can get involved. We have people who have made 2, and never made another. But those 2 go to someone, so still make an impact! We also have people who have made 2,000! It’s as little or much as you’d like. Everything in-between is welcomed. All you need to do is send us an email email@example.com we then send all ofthe details about how to get hold of materials, youtube instructions, everything like that. We have lots of craft groups, university societies, because they’re super easyto make, it’s something you can do as a hobby or one-time thing!’
I just wanted to end with a massive thank you to Ellafor taking the time to speak with me and share a bit of extra information about this incredible project. If you want to get involved and make some pads yourself, you can easily state your interest to their email for more details:
Their website is: https://www.thepachamamaproject.org/
Be sure to check them out on instagram@thepachaproject
Written by Katie Wills