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More than Building Schools

In Rwanda, access to affordable sanitary pads can help keep girls in school

01 July 2011
Women stripping banana fibers (Courtesy of Sustainable Health Enterprises)

Rwandan women strip banana stem fibers to be used to make more affordable menstrual pads.

By Nadia S. Ahmed

Nadia S. Ahmed is managing editor of eJournal USA.

How can countries encourage girls to attend school? Is the answer providing free textbooks or building schools closer to their homes? While these are important pieces of the puzzle, there is another issue that influences whether girls attend school: menstruation.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, one in 10 African girls stays home during menses or drops out of school. In many cases, girls do not have access to affordable sanitary pads, and social taboos against discussing menstruation compound the problem.

American entrepreneur Elizabeth Scharpf founded Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) in 2007 to address this problem. SHE works in Rwanda with its she28 campaign to develop an affordable and eco-friendly pad made from banana stem fibers so that girls can attend school unimpeded by worries over their menses. In the 2011 pilot project, SHE expects to produce 1,200 pads an hour, or about 2,112,000 pads per year. The goal is to reduce the price of pads by 35 percent to 70 percent, SHE Vice President CeCe Camacho explains.

Not only is SHE working to help girls attend school during menses, but also the group is taking a market-based approach to boost local businesses in Rwanda. SHE plans to sell its more-affordable pads to local entrepreneurs, focusing on women sellers. “Donations don’t work long-term. Market-based approaches do, so why leave them for just the business world? Let’s apply them to some of our biggest social problems,” says Camacho.

Taking a comprehensive approach to social challenges is an important part of SHE’s mission. At first, it was thought that what the girls needed was just an affordable pad. However, after talking to local girls, the SHE staff realized that the girls wanted health and hygiene education as well. In response, SHE has trained more than 50 community health and hygiene education workers, reaching some 5,000 Rwandans, according to Camacho. In addition, SHE has partnered with the Forum for African Women Educationalists, the Rwanda Association of University Women, the Rwanda Ministry of Education, the nongovernmental group Population Services International and youth centers to develop a health and hygiene curriculum for girls ages 12 and above, as well as for women and men.

SHE and its partners are also working to get people talking about affordable pads as a policy issue. In 2010, “SHE led a grass-roots advocacy campaign with 10 other leading organizations in Rwanda called Breaking the Silence on Menstruation,” says Camacho. Hundreds of Rwandans marched across the capital and “engaged in a public discussion about how to break down these barriers to girls’ education.” As a result, the Rwandan government approved “a $35,000 procurement of menstrual pads for the poorest girls in Rwanda.”

SHE’s work in Rwanda shows that a comprehensive approach is needed to expand women and girls’ educational opportunities. “Women and girls are often left behind because of some of these silent issues,” Camacho explains. “We need to approach women and girls’ education in a holistic way.” A holistic approach, Camacho elaborates, also means being inclusive and culturally sensitive. It’s important “to listen to the girls and the women as well as the fathers and the sons. It takes everyone to address these issues.”

More information is available on the SHE website.

A she28 campaign video is available on YouTube.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)

People carrying sign and leading march (Courtesy of Sustainable Health Enterprises)

SHE and Rwanda partners launched the national campaign, Breaking the Silence on Menstruation, in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2010.