In 2015, the future was uncertain for five young women from villages near Chabai in Bougainville. Four years on, thanks to volunteer Anne Bellingham, things are looking brighter.

At 24, Ludwina was clever, but she’d left school early with no qualifications and no job to go to. “I was at home doing nothing,” she says.

Today, she couldn’t be busier. Ludwina sews clothes, bags and sanitary products which she sells for a small profit – and when she’s not doing that, she’s running workshops teaching other young women the same skills.

“My life is different now,” she says. “Everything I know, it is easy to do. I feel proud.”

Much of that is down to Anne. She first came to Chabai as an accompanying partner to her husband Peter, on assignment with the Nazareth Centre for Rehabilitation. Founded by the formidable Sister Lorraine Garasu, the centre runs three safe houses for victims of sexual and family violence, as well as training workshops and peace-building initiatives for the wider community.

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Anne and Peter Bellingham

Sr Lorraine shoulder-tapped Anne, a former school technology technician and scout leader, and asked if she’d consider teaching sewing and English to a group of at-risk young women.

Anne and her girls have designed and developed a product desperately needed in Bougainville: reusable sanitary pads. Stigma around menstruation and poor access to sanitary products create huge barriers for women and girls in Bougainville.

“If they haven’t got pads, the girls don’t go to school, women don’t go to meetings, they won’t leave their homes because of the embarrassment,” says Anne. After six weeks of trials the group developed a simple pattern. Made from flannelette pajamas and cotton shirts, and umbrella or shower curtain fabric, fixed with a single button.

“We wanted to develop a sanitary pad that women in remote villages, if they didn’t have a sewing machine, could make by hand,” says Anne. The girls sell a pack of six pads for 15 kina, $NZ7.50.

The 12 girls Anne started with gradually reduced to five core members. Eventually, after much encouragement, they began running workshops teaching other women how to make the pads and care for them.

“When we ran our first workshop,” says Julia (22), “we had 30 women and two sewing machines. I felt scared because I [wasn’t] used to standing and talking in front of people… [Now] I feel confident. I feel very happy and interested in running the workshops in different places.”

Celine (27) ran her first workshop while Anne was away; it was “very scary”. These days, “I feel far more confident talking to people”.

The girls are now busy planning for their next big challenge. Anne has secured a generous grant from the Norman Kirk Memorial Fund, which supports ‘second chance’ education or training. It will enable her and the girls to travel for two weeks in June, running workshops for women in isolated areas in Bougainville. As usual, they’ll sell along the way to cover their costs.

For young women who until recently had never left their home regions, it’s a huge step. All the women say they’re happy and excited at the prospect.

Both Celine and Julia plan to start their own small businesses from home, and all the women are determined to continue sewing and teaching others. As Celine says: “The skills and knowledge I get from Anne make my life different and I can do things by myself now.”

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Anne Bellingham with students. Photo: Vasti Venter