Divya Prem Sewa Mission students thank Sydney Hileman for donating menstrual kits and providing menstrual health education. Credit: Courtesy / Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas

When Sydney Hileman decided to accompany a fellow Girl Scout to India to do community service last July, she never imagined she would get the opportunity to empower young women and provide them with lifelong knowledge. Nor did she expect to earn the Girl Scout Gold Award for her work.

Hileman, 18, is currently a senior at Keystone School and has been in Girl Scouts for 13 years. Before her trip, Hileman learned that girls in rural areas of India don’t have access to feminine products or a way to dispose of them, and that concerned her. She was even more alarmed to learn that, because of the lack of feminine products and female education, girls miss an average of four to five days of school every month.

“It’s very unfair,” Hileman said, “They were missing out on their education for not having access to something as common as pads.”

Passionate about providing girls from rural India with the same opportunities as everyone else, Hileman created a Facebook page where she explained her project and sought donations to purchase menstrual kits. She was able to raise $1,200 and purchase 100 kits, which included AFRIpads, reusable sanitary pads made in Uganda by a business employing hundreds of women with the mission to empower women and girls through business, innovation and opportunity.

She then traveled to Haridwar, India, where she spent two weeks educating young women and teachers at the Divya Prem Sewa Mission, a residential school that provides care to children whose parents suffer from leprosy. Hileman provided training on menstrual health, hygiene, and how to properly use reusable pads. She also provided the tools to teach this information to younger girls.

“This project helped me grow my leadership and improve my communications skills,” she said. “I had to learn to delegate and be clear and concise, since I relied on others to translate.”

For her work, Hileman earned the Gold Award, the most prestigious award given to Girl Scouts. Recipients of the Gold Award plan, implement, and complete a project while recruiting volunteers to help, educating the community about the issue they are working to resolve, and overcoming obstacles during the process. The project must also continue or have the capability of being continued even after they have met their goal. Hileman’s project has proven to be successful and sustainable, since the young women taught by Hileman are already sharing the knowledge with younger girls.

Hileman has become a community leader who breaks barriers and is not afraid to champion topics that many might consider taboo. As a Hispanic woman coming from a very traditional Mexican family, I know this topic is often surrounded by myth and shame.

When Hileman told me her story and described how Indian girls and women felt uncomfortable speaking of menstrual health, my heart hurt because I knew exactly how they felt. Although, Hileman’s project happened across the globe, this topic is also an issue at home, where Texas ranks 42nd in the well-being of girls and San Antonio’s population in poverty was the second highest among the top 25 largest U.S. metro areas in 2017.

Before Hileman provided education and pads, the young women at Divya Prem Sewa Mission used cloths. Due to the lack of water in the area, many times they didn’t have water to wash the cloths. I can’t stop thinking that, just like in India, lack of supplies or education could be a challenge many of our teenage girls are facing here in San Antonio.

According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, girls from low-income families in the U.S. are unprepared for puberty and have largely negative experiences with this transition. When on their periods, many of our teenagers are missing school or getting rashes and infections because of poor menstrual hygiene. UNICEF USA reiterates that, even in the most advanced countries, girls don’t always have adequate education to prepare them for menstruation or the supplies they need. 

Women’s equality around the world and here in our community is still an issue. Our periods can be inconvenient and painful, but they don’t have to stop us from unleashing our potential. We need to speak up, to take action just like Hileman did, and continue supporting the advancement of women. Thank you, gracias, Sydney for your extraordinary dedication and for reminding us that we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to the well-being of girls. 

Flor Salas

Flor Salas is the Director of Marketing and Communications for the Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas.