Affordable sanitary pads improve the lives of Kenyan girls, women and the economy
A woman outside her shop in Nairobi. (Noor Khamis/Reuters)
Imagine being afraid to go to work or school because you are menstruating and can't afford to buy sanitary products.
That is the reality for nearly 65 per cent of Kenyan girls and women, according to the charitable group ZanaAfrica. The Nairobi organization has enlisted the help of philanthropic social change heavy-weights The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Grand Challenges Canada to help bring low-cost, locally made sanitary products to women who are forced to go without.
Like clean water and education, ZanaAfrica's founder Megan White Mukuria believes sanitary pads are a "basic human right."
In the abscence of affordable pads, women are using reusable pads and rags as alternatives - both of which could lead to infections and embarrassing leaks.
In a recent column for the Huffington Post, Mukuria eloquently outlined the stark needs of Kenyan women.
"Here's what I found: If girls don't have sanitary pads, they stay home. The rags they use don't inspire confidence. They are terrified of having an 'accident' at school, so they stay home.
"And they use rags rather than pads because a pack of pads cost 25 percent or more of a family's daily expenses. Pads compete with food or medicine. Across East Africa 4 in 5 women cannot access affordable pads."
The disposable sanitary pad industry relies on expensive softwood pine fibre to make the absorbent material in napkins but these products - which North American women buy without a thought - are out of reach for most East African women.
Grand Challenges is funding research on alternative fibres for use in the production of sanitary products. ZanaAfrica is producing an innovative pad, getting local women to sell them and they are enlisting the help of governments to give them away to school girls, the NGO announced in a EurekAlert! release last week.
ZanaAfrica hopes to provide millions of girls and women with locally manufactured sanitary pads by 2020. If they can, they say they'll "win back" 5 million school days and 2 million lost work hours.
They are also using the female-focused crowd-funding platform Catapult.org to get donors to commit to $15/year to support a girl in Kenya with a year's supply of pads, underwear and health education.
Mukuria is a Harvard grad who has lived in Kenya for 13 years.
"With pads and related health education, girls' absenteeism drops from 4.9 days on average to 1.2 days per month when provided with pads ... When a girl is able to stay in school and do her job, her family does their job. So it's not a silver bullet -- but its pretty close," she wrote in the Huffington Post.
Tanya Talaga is the Star's global economics reporter. Follow her on Twitter @tanyatalaga.