Re-Usable Sanitary Pads Helping Keep Girls in School

Could distributing kits of re-usable sanitary pads to schoolgirls in Kenya help adolescent and teenage girls’ ability to stay in school? Could it educate them about HIV prevention? Could it ultimately help empower girls? The Huru project – which means “freedom” in Swahili – is working to show that it can.

In a situation where girls across the country often have no money to buy sanitary pads, or have to use money that would have gone for food or other necessities, girls are frequently compelled to miss school when they are menstruating. Over time, these absences can put girls further and further behind in their classes and can ultimately contribute to their decision to drop out of school entirely, thus increasing their risk of sexual violence, HIV/AIDS infection, and longer-term health and economic consequences. Some girls, in an effort to scrape together enough money for sanitary pads and to stay in school, will go so far as to exchange sex for money, clearly high risk behavior with huge implications for their safety and their health.

To address these sobering realities, Huru started in 2008 in Mukuru, a slum area of Nairobi, as a project to produce and distribute reusable sanitary pads through schools, working with local partner organizations. Funded by a public-private partnership involving Johnson & Johnson, PEPFAR, the Elton John Foundation, and AmericaShare/Micato Safaris, Huru employs young people from the community in Mukuru to make the pads and assemble the kits, which include a set of sanitary pads for day (5) and night (3), three pairs of underwear, a re-sealable waterproof bag to store the used pads, and soap for cleaning the pads. The kits are put in a backpack stamped with the Huru logo of a butterfly, and also include education materials in English and Swahili on HIV/AIDS prevention, contact information for local services such as voluntary counseling and testing (VCT), and instructions on the use and maintenance of the pads. The kits are distributed at schools as part of an “edutainment” program that provides information about the pads and HIV/AIDS prevention. By early 2011, Huru expects to have distributed kits to some 15,000 schoolgirls throughout Kenya.

When I visited the Huru production site in Makuru, the Huru staff shared with me the results from their recent survey, which found that 57% of the girls surveyed said they had been missing school without the sanitary pads, and that only 2.6% miss school now that they have kits.

Elizabeth, a bright and articulate 19-year-old who works at Huru told me that going to school is so important for girls: “My message to other girls is that everything is possible. You can make it if you stay focused to a goal.” The Huru project can’t overcome all the challenges that keep young girls out of school, but it’s a promising step in the right direction.

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