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When Freweini Mebrahtu left her home country of Ethiopia to study chemical engineering in the United States, she couldn’t believe her eyes when she entered an American drugstore.

“I saw overwhelming choices of sanitary pads,” she said.

In Ethiopia — and many other parts of the world — disposable sanitary products are very expensive and often unavailable, so nearly 75% of Ethiopian women and girls don’t have access to the menstrual supplies they need to manage their periods.

The situation has serious consequences. On average, one in 10 girls in Ethiopia miss school for reasons related to their periods; in some rural areas, this number rises to almost 50%. Missing school can lead girls to fall behind in class and eventually drop out.

So Mebrahtu returned to Ethiopia where she designed and patented a reusable menstrual pad in 2005. She and her team produce 750,000 reusable pads a year at her factory in Ethiopia. Nearly 800,000 girls and women have benefited from her work.

More than 80% of the pads she manufactures are sold to non-governmental organizations that distribute them for free.

Mebrahtu teamed up with the nonprofit, Dignity Period, to end the stigma around the issue by speaking at schools and teaching girls and boys that menstruation is natural, not shameful.

“There is an African proverb, sticks in a bundle are unbreakable,” she said Sunday night as she accepted her Top 10 CNN Heroes award and $10,000 toward her nonprofit.

She thanked all the people, including the women who work in her factory, for supporting her cause.

“These people are all part of my bundle … Reach out and help your sisters — together we can make this issue a thing of the past.”

Mebrahtu was honored by actress Katherine McNamara, who stars in the TV series “Arrow” based on the DC Comics character “Green Arrow.”

Read more about Mebrahtu’s work here and tune into the “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute” right now on CNN TV and CNNgo to see who is named CNN Hero of the Year.

Click here to donate to this cause and the others supported by the 2019 CNN Heroes Top 10.

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