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We need long-term solutions for school girls with no pads

OPINION
By Paula Odhiambo | December 19th 2017

A feminine hygiene product brand recently proudly announced that this month, for every packet of sanitary towels a woman buys from them, they will donate a packet to a girl somewhere so that she does not have to miss classes due to her monthly period.

The average woman has one period a month for four decades. My simple question, “What will these girls do next month?” was immediately deleted and had me blocked from the brand’s social media page.

“Sanitary Pads for School Girls” has trended as a charity effort for about ten years now. Around 2007, stories began to emerge about how young women in Kenya’s rural areas are forced to stay away from school for a few days every month due to their inability to afford sanitary products to use during their monthly period.

Heart-rending stories of girls and women having to dig holes and sit over them for days were a huge hit, particularly in the US.

I read through several proposals and reports from people who came to Kenya on holiday, posed with girls in Meru, Isiolo or elsewhere, and then returned abroad to raise funds “to help these girls complete their education.”  

As is often the case, what probably started as a genuine effort was capitalised on by parties with various agendas. However, the manufacturers of these much-needed sanitary products were silent. It took the above-mentioned brand close to a decade to begin to weigh in on this issue, and, unfortunately, their contribution is insulting.

Inconveniences

The first simple reason is their products are substandard. It is shameful and absurd, and perhaps slightly comical, that several women, myself included, have to buy sanitary products in bulk – suitcases full; six months’ supply on average - from outside the country, in order to continue to live and work without a one-week break every month. Unfortunately, not every Kenyan woman has that option.

Many deal with whatever they can afford, which means frequent bathroom breaks and embarrassing leaks. In school and work environments where women are not really considered when bathroom locations and facilities are being conceptualised and constructed, this can be quite embarrassing.

Think about a woman who feels a leak while at her desk and has to discreetly carry a pair of clean underwear to the washroom – what does she do with the stained one?  

Think about the woman stuck in traffic for two hours, or the one who has to step away from her desk or class every hour or two to change. Woe betide the woman if the brand she uses did not consider discreet packaging.

Ungainly packages

A story has done the rounds on the internet about a woman who went to change, only to hear a little girl ask, “Mum, why did that lady carry snacks into the bathroom?”

Think about the girl in a public school, where the toilets are unsanitary; many times pit or ceramic latrines. There is no water or toilet paper; there are no wipes. She has to find a way to hygienically balance holding the product with one hand and changing it with the other while not touching any other part of the stall, if you can picture that acrobatic process. God forbid she needs to squat for a short call in the process. She has to remain clean after all this.

Women all over the country deal with this daily. It is imperative for brands to think bigger if they want to convince us that they care about the girl or the woman. The first place to begin would be to create useful, quality products.

These brands can afford to provide long-term solutions that go beyond one month and do not majorly affect profits.  Reusable pads, subsidizing the products, educating men on exactly what girls and women go through every month, adding free pads to the corporate social responsibility strategy, and partnership with government ministries are a few that come to mind.

Ms. Odhiambo is a Communications Consultant

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