Sunday, February 28, 2010

International Aid Organizations Target African Schoolgirl Absences with Sanitary Menstrual Pads

New York Times: Girls’ Health: Kits to Aid in Menstrual Health May Cut School Absenteeism in Kenya
WaterWired: Keeping Girls in School Through Better Sanitation
BBC: Sanitary pads help Ghana girls go to school
Voice Of America: On World Water Day, A Call for Improved Sanitation
Voice of America: Keeping Girls in School May be a Matter of Better Sanitary Protection

Small things matter. Using microfinance and paying close attention to root causes of what holds development back can sometimes yield greater results than a poorly implemented 100 million dollar loan from international donors. Recently concluded studies by Oxford University have found that contrary to common conception, by itself greater access to clean water and sanitation is not the greatest barrier to education. The results of the study conclude that greater access to sanitary products during their period can slash schoolgirl absenteeism.

To many in the West this may appear a simple problem. However, to those in Africa it is much more difficult. First, menstruation is a taboo subject. Many women and girls do not want to discuss it and they are not comfortable trying new alternatives to traditional ways of dealing with their monthly period. An example from Ghana demonstrates the difficulties that women currently face. Researches found that most schoolgirls have two small pieces of cloth and must wash and dry them each night. If they do not dry completely, the still damp or soiled cloth will be unhygienic and place the girls at a higher risk of infection.

In addition to physical health, the start of puberty brings extra pressure from men for sex. This unwanted pressure comes even from schoolteachers, providing an additional incentive to leave school. Recent reports in Kenya have begun exposing this frequent unwanted sexual harassment. Sadly, this all too often leads to schoolgirls becoming pregnant and dropping out of school permanently.

A simple solution to these problems would be greater access to sanitary products. Unlike most in the developed work, many poor families are unable to afford disposable pads. The cost in Kenya is as high as a sack of corn flour, and it is difficult to justify that expense for a family that can barely afford food. Kenyan women report that the lack of access to affordable menstrual pads is a major problem for their schooling and many families find that it is easier to keep girls at home during school days when they are menstruating.

In Kenya, Huru International has teamed up with several western donors to tackle the rarely talked about topic that has the potential keep women out of the classroom several days a month. It has developed washable and reusable menstrual cloth pads, and hopes that by distributing them more women will stay in school. These are sewn and distributed by a Nairobi community center, supported by an American charity. The pads also include information on safe sex and preventing the spread of AIDS. There is hope that other organizations throughout Africa will use microfinance loans to buy the machines needed to make these pads and set up their own distribution networks.

Big projects bring headlines, but small projects may have a more direct impact on people. Often microfinancing can solve problems that are not even a concern for many in the West. Reports have shown that a lack of sanitary menstrual pads is a major issue leading to missed school days by girls, is a clear health risk, and can lead to even more sexual abuse by male teachers. Where large projects might overlook an issue, smaller aid organizations can fill the niche. In Kenya, they are spurring the adoption of these processes across Africa and trying to build a cottage industry that both creates revenue and solves this important problem.

Discussion Questions

1) How can Western aid organizations better direct their aid to dealing with small projects that have bigger impacts?

2) What ways can international financing for development projects use microfinancing to leverage an expanded economic impact?

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