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#WomenStrongWarrior Spotlight: Dr. Marni Sommer

#WomenStrongWarrior Spotlight: Dr. Marni Sommer

At WomenStrong International, we believe in the power of bold women and are inspired to share their accomplishments. These powerful changemakers turn challenges into innovations, share our belief in women and girls, and deserve recognition for their achievements. This series spotlights the essential work #WomenStrongWarriors accomplish all over the world. We hope their stories inspire you, as well.

Girls across the globe are clamoring for the chance to read Dr. Marni Sommer’s latest book, with over a million copies distributed and counting. And no, it’s not the next installment of The Hunger Games. Instead, it’s a colorfully illustrated book designed to help adolescent girls better understand their bodies and natural biological processes ― and so to feel empowered. While one million books distributed is quite an achievement, Dr. Sommer didn’t always know that helping young girls understand periods and puberty would be her calling.

In the mid-1990s, after completing her bachelor’s degree in History and French at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Sommer had no idea what the future held. So, she decided to pack her bags, join the Peace Corps and travel over 7,000 miles to teach English to adolescents in a rural village in Eritrea, in northeast Africa. For two years she worked with local girls and was surprised to see how many dropped out of school once they reached puberty. It soon became clear that the girls were dropping out because without running water or clean menstruation supplies, they were simply not equipped to manage their periods while attending school.

The fact that a common biological process like a period could become an insurmountable obstacle to a girl’s education left Dr. Sommer wondering why more wasn’t being done to help young girls. At the time, academic research on the subject was nearly nonexistent, a gap that inspired her to return to the United States to pursue a career in global health and development focused on removing obstacles to education that should never have been there in the first place.

“I always felt incredibly fortunate that I could get any kind of education I wanted,” she said. “There were never any barriers to me being able to pursue education.”

In 2001, she earned a double Master’s degree in public health and nursing from Johns Hopkins University and by 2008 she held a doctorate in public health from Columbia University, as well. She returned to east Africa, to conduct her doctoral research fieldwork in Tanzania, where she explored how menstruation and puberty could disrupt girls’ academic performance and a healthy transition into adulthood.

Dr. Sommer meets with locals on a recent trip to Tanzania.

In hopes of directly impacting the lives of the Tanzanian girls with whom she worked, Dr. Sommer was motivated to create the Girl’s Puberty Book Project, a unique guide for teaching 10-14-year-old girls there about their changing bodies.

After researching ways to approach the material, she decided to design the books in a way that was both accessible to girls and fun. Using the young adult author Judy Blume’s approachable books as inspiration, Dr. Sommer’s own work includes frequently asked questions, anatomy diagrams, and firsthand accounts from adolescent girls of all ages about their experiences with menstruation.

An excerpt from Dr. Sommer’s Tanzanian Girl’s Puberty Book. Illustration credit: Abdul Gugu

The books were a huge success. Building on the positive response, Dr. Sommer decided in 2010 to found the organization Grow and Know, whose mission is to empower young girls and boys to reach their full potential through improved education and preparation for life. Since then, she has adapted the original puberty book for distribution to both boys and girls in seven countries in Africa and Asia.

Now, with more than a million copies of the puberty books distributed through partnerships with the Nike Foundation, United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF, some people might take this as an opportunity to sit back and admire a job well done. But Dr. Sommer has more ambitious plans. She is working in at least two other countries, to adapt the content to reach even more adolescents who urgently need information not otherwise available.

Dr. Sommer believes that each book must be tailored to a country’s specific culture, local mythologies and beliefs. Field workers spend several months meeting with girls, teachers, healthcare workers, and parents in each rural and urban setting, to find out what topics should be included in each version of the book. Once the content is finalized, Grow and Know puts local illustrators and translators to work on the design and then partners with organizations including UNICEF and local NGOs that purchase copies to distribute.

“I’d love to see every girl and boy get this book when they hit age nine or 10,” Dr. Sommer said about her hopes for the book. “Even if they only have access to it for a few days, it should be standard reading.

“Girls hold so much fear about their periods, at least by reading this book it will normalize it ― so they won’t think they are sick or dying,” she added.

Dr. Sommer gathers with the menstrual hygiene management in emergencies pilot team in Tanzania.

Women and girls in emergency situations, such as disaster and conflict areas, face even greater challenges in maintaining basic feminine hygiene. To respond to these unique circumstances, Dr. Sommer is currently working with Columbia University, Elrha’s R2HC program, and the International Rescue Committee, to develop a menstrual hygiene management toolkit that can help advise transitional humanitarian teams, like those serving in refugee camps, on effective ways to provide menstrual supplies, clean toilets, and proper disposal of products.

Dr. Sommer embodies what it means to be a #WomenStrongWarrior. Her pioneering public health research continues to empower women and girls with vital information and essential support ― all of which is at the core of WomenStrong’s “Empowering the Period” campaign.

Hear Dr. Sommer in a recent interview for “The David Feldman Show,” discussing the problems refugees face in managing their periods.

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