Women in Kenya work to keep girls in school by supplying reusable sanitary pads

ELDORET, KENYA – After lunch break at Langas Primary School, in Eldoret’s Kisumu Ndogo slum, 192 miles west of Nairobi, Mercy Wairimu enjoys a quick skip of the rope with her friends before the bell rings for the afternoon lessons to resume.

Mercy, 17, a class seven pupil in Uasin Gishu County, was lucky to have been informed by her teachers about menstruation before she got her periods last year, and she now confides in them about her experiences. But she has struggled to get sanitary pads, even though the government recently promised to supply some through the schools.

“I always have had a heavy flow, and the pads I was given at school could only be enough for a day or two and then later I would resort to other means like using old rags if my parents do not have money to buy me another packet. But with the pads I have just been given, I can put more liners to absorb the bleeding,” Mercy explains.

The new pads come from a women’s organization in Uasin Gishu County called Women Development Centre (WODEC) that decided last year to start making reusable sanitary towels from locally available materials.

WODEC is one of several non-profit groups that are responding to an issue that marginalizes many women and girls: two-thirds of Kenyan women are unable to afford sanitary products. Periods cause 1 in 10 girls to miss 5 percent of school every month, posing a threat to their performance and overall success, according to a recent report by UNESCO .

Judith Cheptoo, a member of WODEC, sews reusable sanitary pads. Photo by Dominic Kirui

A few weeks ago, WODEC donated sanitary towels to vulnerable women and girls in schools, slums and the region’s rural areas. Mercy Wairimu was among those who benefitted from the free, reusable sanitary pads.

WODEC’s executive director, Milka Cherotich, says she founded the organization after thinking about her own experience growing up and learning about an Indian organization that makes reusable sanitary pads.

“When I was growing up, there were no sanitary towels, and when I reached puberty, our class teacher in primary school then advised us to cut old clothes and mattresses and then stack the rags and sponges in our panties to absorb the blood,” she said.

“I saw pads for the first time when I was joining secondary school, and it was my aunts who bought them for me since my mother did not even know what was going on with me and would not even ask,” Cherotich recalls.

When she embarked on research to find out how reusable pads are made, she was referred to the Dutch organization Via Water, which provided a financial injection of 2,250,000 Kenyan shillings, about US$21,635.

Reusable sanitary pads made from absorbent cloth and waterproof liners. Photo by Dominic Kirui

WODEC would later use the money to train women to make the towels at New Vision Self Help Group, a similar organization in Migori County.

After making the sanitary towels, WODEC sells them to school girls at 100 Kenya shillings (almost a dollar each) and at 150 Kenya shillings to women around the area.

The demand is very high because women prefer the reusable pads to other types of sanitary pads, which cost a similar amount for a single packet of pads that can be used only once.

According to Cherotich, mother-to-daughter communication about menstrual hygiene and sexuality in general are a big problem in rural Kenya, including in Uasin Gishu and other counties inhabited by pastoralist communities that consider such topics taboo.

On June 21, President Uhuru Kenyatta assented to the Basic Education (Amendment) Legislative Proposal, 2014, which tasks the Ministry of Education with ensuring a supply of “free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels to every girl child in public basic education institutions.”

Baringo county Women Representative Grace Kiptui drafted the measure calling on the Kenyan government to set aside a budget for the purchase and supply of free, quality sanitary towels to all girls in public and secondary schools in Kenya.

With more than 2,000 pupils, Langas Primary School is one of the largest primary schools in the country, second only to Olympic Primary School in Nairobi’s Kibera, Africa’s largest urban slum.

According to Jael Tarus, the Langas deputy principal, many girls still face a challenge getting enough sanitary pads through the government.

“The government currently supplies sanitary pads once every year and the girls are only given two packets each during school days. When they close school, they have to depend on their parents to buy or resort to other means such as use of rags, mattresses, tissue paper and other funny things,” she said.

Mercy Wairimu is one of those girls who struggle to buy sanitary pads. Her father is a cobbler in Kisumu Ndogo, where Langas Primary School is situated. Her mother is a casual laborer who sometimes works on farms or cooks at a local church for pastors during Bible study. Her parents had been living apart and Mercy was in class seven in another school. She is older than many girls in class seven; when she and her mother moved in with her father, he forced her to go back three grades, because she was small.

In a 2015 study on sanitary hygiene in Kenya, Dr. Penelope Phillips-Howard found that 10 percent of 15-year-old girls had sex for money to buy sanitary pads and 50 percent of those in slums were sexually exploited in their quest for sanitary products.

TheGirlChild launched a campaign on Fundly dubbed “Sanitary Pads for School Girls in Kenya.” . The not-for-profit organization works with Women’s Health Ambassadors, Lunapads, AFRIpads and other non-profit groups to train girls and women in Kenyan communities in making sanitary kits and in other income-generating skills.

The partnership also seeks to provide school girls with reusable cloth sanitary pads that are durable and easy to soak, wash and dry.

Cherotich, the WODEC director, said, “Unlike disposable sanitary tampons that take hundreds of years to decompose, cloth pads are environmentally friendly as nothing is left out to go to landfills every month.” She added that the pads her group makes also are comfortable to wear and can be used for the whole day, unlike disposable pads, which have to be changed after five to six hours.

Daniel Karanja, the monitoring and evaluations project officer at Global Mission Service, a local NGO working with AMREF Africa in hygiene and sanitation, says that Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) is a key part to achieving United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 6.2, which calls for adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, especially women and girls and those in vulnerable situations, by 2030.

“Menstrual hygiene should now be a common practice for all and sundry if we are to involve our women in development and in turn achieve the vision 2030,” Karanja says.

Global Mission Service is working in parts of Northrift Kenya to implement the government’s Kenya Sanitation and Hygiene Improvement Program (K-SHIP). Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council donates money through the Global Sanitation Fund to AMREF Africa, which in turn works with Global Mission Service to implement K-SHIP.

Karanja also says that menstrual hygiene communication is still a big problem and there is a need to involve men in breaking the silence about it.

Stories have been told of girls and women from poor backgrounds in Sub-Saharan Africa who resort to unhygienic means to stop the bleeding during their periods, with some using chicken feathers, or use a special goat skin strapped to their thighs to catch the blood. Although some local leaders deny that such practices take place, Women Representative Kiptui cited the issue when proposing that government supply sanitary products to girls around the country.

Civil society organizations and women’s rights activists express concerns about whether the government will ensure that the supply is steady. Some hope that the government will partner with organizations such as WODEC to supply the pads to schools, aiding girls like Mercy Wairimu.

Cherotich says that her organization is in talks with county governments about distributing its reusable sanitary towels to schools in the area.

“I wish that all girls like me and my friends will also get the sanitary towels like the one I was given so that they can be able to always attend school and not miss on lessons,” Mercy said.