In many areas of sub-Saharan Africa, gender parity tends to decline at higher levels of schooling. While girls’ enrollment and completion rates for primary school are typically high, these rates decrease with secondary and tertiary education. Girls may discontinue their studies to devote more time to household chores, to earn extra income by engaging in commercial activities or to ease the financial burden on their family, who may not be able to afford tuition fees. Another consideration is menstruation: girls miss 3-5 days of school during their periods – 50 plus school days per year – often because they lack access to private latrines and/or to feminine hygienic products. These absences cause them to fall further and further behind their male peers academically, eventually leading many to drop out.
A simple, cost-effective intervention has been shown to decrease girls’ absenteeism rates. Research conducted in Ghana by Oxford University’s Säid Business School found that giving girls feminine pads reduced absenteeism from 21 percent to nine percent of school days. In international development circles, it is increasingly common knowledge that access to feminine pads can make a difference in keeping girls in school.
A group of committed nursing students from Columbia University’s School of Nursing and their instructor resolved to find a culturally acceptable, sustainable, low-cost solution. Their final design was nine square inches of double-layered, colored cotton material, which after washing, can be hung to dry in the sun.
In the space of one week’s time, the Columbia instructor, in collaboration with a Millennium Cities Initiative specialist in Mekelle, Ethiopia, showed 206 girls in six Mekelle schools how to make and care for these pads, which are made from locally available soft cotton. The pads have been well-received by the girls, giving them a greater sense of independence. “This will save my family money,” said one girl after learning how to make the pads. Another said, “I will not feel afraid to go out during menstruation.”
The Columbia University’s Center for New Media Technology and Learning team is developing a video on the impact these homemade, reusable and environmentally-friendly feminine pads can have on the girls’ education in Mekelle.
The concept was demonstrated to 75 Health Extension Workers in Wukro, a nearby town close to the Millennium Villages Project sites, at the request of the Ethiopian Ministry of Health. Moms for Moms, a local organization that helps mothers and children in Mekelle where other MCI volunteers have worked, is strongly considering going into production of the model pad as an income-generating project. And MAA Garment Factory, an Ethiopian-based clothing manufacturer, has agreed to donate cotton to further the initiative.
Students, school administrators, women’s groups and community leaders alike have embraced the project. After watching one of the demonstrations, one school administrator commented, “We have been educated with the most valuable information just now. We must teach others and spread it throughout Tigray (the region surrounding Mekelle). We do not need anything from the outside. We have our own material here, and we will protect the environment from plastics.”
Lessons in how to make the pads have recently been incorporated into local schools’ science, economics and health classes. In time, those leading this initiative, both from Columbia and now from Mekelle itself, anticipate that this important and practical intervention will have an even greater impact – keeping girls in school, thereby creating a broadened range of economic and social opportunities for them, ultimately benefiting entire communities.