Why Investing in Menstruation Matters to Education
Do you remember a moment in your life when you knew exactly what you wanted to do? Who you wanted to be, and the steps you needed to take in order to make that a reality?
Could you achieve it without an education?
I remember a New Year’s Eve over twenty years ago, when I saw an advertisement calling for donations in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In that moment, I saw a future in social work, and the degree I’d need to get there. I wanted an education, and I had the resources to pursue it.
My positionality has never led me to question my access to an education, an experience far removed from the girls with whom I work. I work in the realm of menstrual health, which many still do not realize is vital to education.
I have worked in Kenya for over two decades, originally assisting with community HIV/AIDS testing and treatment. I worked to bring mobile units into Mukuru Kwa Njenga, the second-largest informal housing settlement in Nairobi, and the place that led me to Huru International.
Every day in Kenya, I encountered girls with the same problem — all bright, capable young girls — who had fallen behind in school or dropped out entirely because they did not have access to things that I took for granted: undergarments, sanitary pads, or a clean change of clothes. Their stories have remained consistent over the course of my career: I only have one good uniform, and I don’t want to soil it. I’m scared of being embarrassed in front of my classmates (especially the boys); I feel ashamed when I have my period; I have no money for pads, so I just stay home.
Misinformation and lack of resources to manage menstruation keep millions of girls out of school every month while they’re on their period. In India, only 1 of 2 girls has knowledge about menstruation before her first period. In Uganda, 1 out of 2 girls will miss as many as three days of school each month due to menstruation-related challenges. 65 percent of women and girls in Kenya can’t afford sanitary pads.
This leads girls to seek alternatives for pads — many unsanitary — like pieces of mattress, torn clothes and cow dung. Many girls with whom we work regularly express feeling low self-confidence, and that their participation in class is hindered by constantly worrying if they’re leaking. So even if they can manage their periods with pieces of mattress, we know that does not translate to school attendance; and even if they are attending, we know that they may not be participating to their fullest capacity.
We know that some girls engage in transactional sex to obtain pads. We know that dropout rates accelerate for girls at menarche. We know that this perpetuates pervasive cycles of poverty and gender inequity that exist throughout resource-constrained settings across the globe.
Most of all: we know that the key to chipping away at this entrenched cycle of poverty is education.
In Swahili, there are different words for freedom. Uhuru means independence, structural autonomy of regional or national capacity. But Huru alone has a more personal connotation, one that emulates the ability to choose; the agency to pursue something of your own accord — whether that is an education, or health, or another opportunity.
Huru International was founded in 2008 with a simple vision: a world where no girl misses school because of her period. Since then, we have distributed over 1,000,000 Huru Pads, made locally in Nairobi, Kenya, by women and men from Mukuru Kwa Njenga.
When we distribute these pads, we do so in conjunction with developmentally appropriate and contextually-specific education, cultivating safe spaces for girls to learn, ask questions, and engage with information on sexual and reproductive health, myths surrounding menstruation, gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS prevention, menstrual hygiene, and self-confidence.
Perhaps it isn’t original to say that investing in a girl’s education would have local, national, and global effects. When the percentage of women with a secondary education increases by 1 percent, the annual per capita economic growth increases by 0.3 percent. Just one additional year in school can increase a woman’s lifetime earnings by as much as 20 percent. When a girl is educated, she is more likely to delay sexual debut and wait longer to have children. A woman who is educated is more likely to vaccinate her children, who in turn are more likely to stay in school — thus creating a new cycle of its own.
At Huru International, we invest in a girl’s education through reusable sanitary pads. Each pad is a tool that can be used to broker access to an education. They also act as a point-of-entry for sexual and reproductive health education that is equally vital to her personal freedom. Freedom to pursue an education opens a girl’s agency to so many other choices: freedom to choose a career, to choose a partner or a marriage, freedom to engage in sexual activity only when she is ready, and the freedom to feel confident in saying no if she is not.
It is also important to note that girls do not live in a silo, which is why at Huru we also work with boys, men, women, families, and the community to help create a gender equitable environment that supports girls’ education.
I have always loved school and learning, but I have never had to negotiate an education with my (in)ability to manage my period. Education and public health are inexorably linked, and are too often complicated by gender, race, sexual orientation, disease, socioeconomic status, cultural taboo, and geographic location, among other factors. To sit at these crossroads is extremely nuanced and complex.
As we head back to school, consider how you, or someone you know may be changed if they could not effectively manage their periods. Consider how this may change the way you perceive yourself, your body, or your place in the community. Consider how this may have changed your education, your opportunities or your current career.
It has been estimated that 1 in 10 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa will miss school on their menstrual cycle. Huru is trying to fix this. We recently launched a Back to School Campaign with the goal of keeping 500 girls in school by September 5. Our vision is for a world where no girl misses school because of her period. Let’s make this a reality. Keep her in school. Period.