An Unlikely Obstacle to Girls’ Education: Improving Hygiene Around the World
There’s been a slow but steady push in recent years to improve girls’ access to education in developing countries. But while education has tremendous implications for gender equality and economic and social development overall, the potential for progress is limited if girls end up staying home from school several days a month — up to 20 percent of the school year — because they don’t have a very simple product: feminine products for when their periods come.
Education Is Key
Over the last couple years, according to founder Elizabeth Scharpf, the Sustainable Health Enterprises, or SHE team has realized that to successfully improve health and sanitation, pads have to come with menstrual hygiene and health education. “After doing a needs assessment,” she said, “we realized that there was really a thirst for information about one’s body, and so we put together a curriculum of best practices, of menstrual hygiene and health education.”
The development of a curriculum has a double benefit: it helps girls receiving pads to understand the importance of proper sanitation, but it also enables a multiplier effect because the content can be shared and spread beyond the areas of SHE’s direct impact.
“We’ve helped 5,000 people, but we’re not going to be able to go and train, one by one, every single person,” she said. “We’re hoping to reach 10 million in Rwanda alone.”
Scharpf said they’ve been working with the Rwandan government to adapt the national curriculum, which is a significant step in itself (and she said Rwanda also included sanitary pads in the government budget in 2011 and again in 2012), but SHE has also been working with global partners UNICEF and WaterAid to incorporate the menstrual hygiene content in national global guidelines as well.
Scharpf said they’ve also realized the importance of broadening the lessons beyond the use of sanitary pads specifically. “We know that not everyone’s going to be able to have pads at the end of the day,” she said. “We teach how to wash rags appropriately.”
SHE is not the only enterprise focused on education. An organization with a similar mission, Empower Women in Africa (EWA), also distributes pads but in the process is also trying to pass on the skills and know-how so that girls and women can make their own pads, too. EWA tries to pair up individuals from participating communities with a foreign volunteer to teach girls, whether it’s in the classroom or an after-school program or a clinic, to sew the pads by hand so they can make more when they need them.
EWA founder Lori Schippers has learned some lessons about the distribution process as well. “Over the past year, we’ve realized the importance of including certain things in each donation – like underwear (because many girls don’t have a pair, rendering the pads useless) and a Ziploc bag (to hold dirty pads),” she said.
EWA has also begun to partner with One School at a Time, a nonprofit that works with schools in Uganda. One School at a Time director Bay Roberts said lack of access to feminine products is a well-known problem among people working with girls or education in developing countries like Uganda. Before EWA, they simply bought retail sanitary products. But because they were disposable and in limited supply, teachers would provide pads on an as-needed basis (and the need is high — when a class is asked who needs pads, it’s not uncommon for every girl to raise her hand), rather than for a girl’s full cycle. Once Roberts confirmed from medical professionals that reusable pads, even when washed in contaminated water, are an improvement for these girls, she decided to partner with EWA to provide girls with the full five-day kits.
And the program manager in Uganda will be educating girls about menstruation and the importance of sanitation and their new feminine kits. They’re also planning mother-daughter meetings, to help mothers help their daughters through the process and keep their school attendance high.
EWA operates a little differently from SHE and other organizations in that they solicit donations of either pads from GladRags, which sells Empower Kits directly from its website, or materials for sewing pads from scratch. Schippers organizes sewing events, and has instructions online that people can follow to sew pads on their own and send to EWA in order to be delivered to partnering schools and communities.
Whichever organization is providing them, these pads are transformative. Days for Girls, an organization that Schippers used as a role model in shaping EWA, says it has seen feminine hygiene kits change lives, from keeping girls in school to encouraging women to stand up to abuse — and even reducing the prevalence of female genital mutilation.
SHE (which along with AFRIpads was recognized by global women’s network Women Deliver as one of the “most inspiring ideas and solutions” for girls and women around the world), EWA, and other organizations and companies have formed in the U.S. to address this issue internationally — but that’s not to suggest there aren’t efforts taking place locally in communities around the world. They’re just harder to find and round up. But as two quick examples, students in northern Uganda have been staying after school to make reusable sanitary pads using cheap, locally available materials, and they teach girls to do the same.
And in India — where a reported 88 percent of women use things like ashes, newspapers, dried leaves and husk sand during their periods, leading to reproductive tract infections for more than 70 percent of those women and increasing the risk of certain cancers, including cervical cancer — Arunachalam Muruganantham realized that if this was an issue for the women close to him, then it must be an issue for millions of other poor women. He became set on creating a low-cost and effective feminine product. But the women in his family wouldn’t test his sample products and give him feedback, so he decided to go testing them himself. The Guardian had a story on him that is worth reading in full, but the point is that there are efforts around the world focused on this issue, and the increase in local initiatives, as well as locally sourced materials, is encouraging.
Which brings us back to SHE for a minute. Education aside, the organization is also focused right now on LaunchPads, which will be made with local and eco-friendly resources. The group has worked with partners, including MIT and the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, to figure out how to use agricultural byproducts like banana fibers to make eco-friendly pads, which Scharpf hopes will be sold for less than a quarter of the price of pads from multinational companies. On the slate for this year is bringing large-scale manufacturing for those pads to East Africa, and she thinks the focus next year will be to bring similar projects and technology to other areas around the world, like India and Caribbean nations.