Addressing health needs and women's economic empowerment in Solomon Islands during COVID-19

Woman wears matching face mask and dress in tropical print on a beach, with large flower crown

MJ Enterprise team member models the newly sewn face mask (MJ Enterprise)


The sudden and rapid onset of COVID-19 globally was met with great anxiety in the Solomon Islands, where a weak and under- resourced health system. Coupled with this was the shortage of locally available personal protective equipment (PPE), which created huge vulnerabilities and fear around how the country would handle the pandemic if it were to reach their shores.

 

This volatile situation brought about many challenges both at a government level and a local level, where Plan International and Live & Learn are delivering their Water for Women Project, New Times, New Targets: supporting Solomon Islands Government WASH transition and resilient WASH for all. However, within this context, there is also opportunity for innovation and growth.

 

In a bid to provide an alternative income stream for Plan and Live & Learn’s local partner, MJ Enterprise, while also supporting the Solomon Island Government's COVID-19 health response, the idea of ‘pivoting’ MJ Enterprise's sanitary pad production facility to sew reusable face masks was discussed and agreed to.

 

It took a tremendous collaborative effort from everyone involved, including Plan and Live & Learn staff in Australia and Solomon Islands, MJ Enterprise staff, plus external advice and lesson sharing from others such as Field Ready (Fiji) and Mama’s Laef (Vanuatu) who also produce face-masks.

 

The team conducted a rapid analysis of evidence, developed a new brand name - “Claire” - under MJ Enterprise, and produced branded, clear and robust guidance on the use, washing and storage of face masks. MJ Enterprise staff quickly set about re-organising their three production facilities to enable social distancing and went to work piloting suggested patterns and materials, quickly honing their skills.

Young girl wearing a face mask

Claire was the inspiration behind MJ Enterpise's new mask business name, 'Claire'

The leadership and dedication of MJ Enterprise’s youngest staff member, Claire (left), who has difficulty hearing and talking, was acknowledged with the adoption of her name as the brand name. Through her sign interpreter, Claire said she was “super thrilled and happy to be the face of Kaleko Mask!”

With financial assistance from the Water for Women project to procure materials and cover costs, MJ Enterprise’s eight female staff have now successfully sewn over 2,400 face masks, the distribution of which remains in discussion with Ministry of Health and Medical Services.

 

The process of sewing this initial batch of face masks has enabled MJ Enterprise to understand the costs associated with face mask production and develop branded packaging/guidance materials for future use, supporting the potential for business diversification while maintaining MJ Enterprise’s strong social mission.

 

Group of women sitting at a table with sewing machines

With a lull in sanitary pad production, due to limited sales and supply-chain challenges, MJ Enterprise's female staff were provided with the opportunity to broaden their sewing skills and felt good about playing their part in the battle against COVID-19.

The Founder of MJ Enterprise, Mary Ramosaea said that the workshops were “buzzing with the excitement” of moving into face mask production.

While this has been an exciting diversification for MJ Enterprise and its staff, the need, and their determination to support menstruating women and girls during the pandemic remains paramount.

Group of women on a beach in matching tropical dresses and face masks

The MJ Enterprise team sporting their masks – note, matching dresses are not included with face masks! (MJ Enterprise)

In parallel with the face mask collaboration, Plan and Live & Learn have supported the collaborative development of menstrual health facilitators’ notes and guides along with handouts and posters to support MJ Enterprise to deliver factual, highly contextualised and relevant information to community members.

 

To complement this initiative, the New Times, New Targets Project has developed a strategy to support the growth of MJ Enterprise’s sanitary pad business, ‘Kaleko Steifree’, that will be implemented collaboratively in the year ahead with MJ Enterprise contracted to implement menstrual health awareness sessions in communities targeted by the Project from August 2021.


 

Through Partnerships for Recovery, Australia is supporting COVID-19 work across the Pacific to secure our region’s health, wellbeing and stability in these challenging times. Through Water for Women, not only are we delivering safe, equitable and sustainable Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), we are also building, healthy, inclusive and resilient societies. 

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