By Ash Rogers, executive director, Lwala Community Alliance
The conversation surrounding women and girls’ is certainly changing.
2016 marks a real turning point — a year that ended the tampon tax in several cities across the United States, and saw an Olympian speak openly about her period. It is fitting that during the UN General Assembly, we reflect on menstruation in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals and its impact on a young girl’s development.
Let’s start with a story of a Kenyan girl, Grace*. She is 13 years old. Her father died of HIV and her mother struggles to maintain a household of five children. Grace is bright, but has less time to study than her brothers because of expectations that she help with chores.
One day, Grace stood up in her class to answer a question. Students around her began snickering and pointing. The teacher shouted at her to leave immediately. She looked down to realize, in horror, that she had blood on her uniform. She ran home, humiliated and concerned that she might be very ill. Later that day, she learned about her period for the first time — not from a parent or teacher, but from a classmate. This same friend pointed out that, since there aren’t latrines or water at school, the simplest option is to stay home while on her period. She also told Grace how some of the older girls would “play sex” with local taxi drivers to get money for sanitary pads.
Around the world, adolescence is a time of crisis and indignity for girls like Grace. In Kenya alone, nearly one million girls miss school because of menstruation, 25 percent of girls do not know that menstruation is connected to childbearing, and very few girls know that it is their human right to refuse transactional sex or that rape is a crime.
In rural Western Kenya, Lwala Community Alliance (Lwala) — in partnership with Johnson & Johnson, Weyerhaeuser Family Foundation, and Blood:Water Mission — has developed community-led solutions to the challenges faced by girls like Grace.
First, school management committees across 13 government primary schools created Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene plans, which made it possible to install latrines, water catchment tanks, and hand-washing stations — all of which are critical to helping girls manage their monthly cycles.
Education is also key, and as such, communities formed sexual and reproductive health committees that address rights issues, including child protection, gender inequity, transactional sex, and rape. Simultaneously, Lwala trained teacher-mentors to offer education on leadership and reproductive health to boys and girls.
Lwala spurred a spin-off social enterprise called New Visions, which produces uniforms and sanitary pads, and with Johnson & Johnson’s support, Lwala can now provide pads and uniforms for adolescent girls across 13 schools. A partnership with our friends at Afripads allowed Lwala to expand this program in 2016.
Through these initiatives, the ratio of girls graduating from primary school increased from 37 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2015. Communities themselves are ensuring that no girl drops out of school or becomes pregnant because they lack the tools to navigate adolescence.
Menstruation does indeed matter. It is a healthy, normal part of being a woman, and as such, all women and girls should access all of the interventions needed to manage their cycles and continue life normally. Lwala’s hope for the UN General Assembly is that issues surrounding menstrual hygiene are discussed openly, and that we see more focus on community-led, holistic solutions that keep women and girls safe and healthy.