By Francis Mureithi
A lack of information about menstruation leads to damaging misconceptions and discrimination and can cause girls to miss out on normal childhood experiences and activities. Stigma, taboos and myths prevent adolescent girls and boys from the opportunity to learn about menstruation and develop healthy habits. – Unicef
Maasai Mara University has launched a project to manufacture reusable sanitary towels that will benefit numerous girls in Narok County and beyond who cannot afford the towels. The Acting Vice-Chancellor, Prof Kitche Magak, discusses the one of a kind project which he refers to as a “silent revolution and a game-changer” that will transform the university, which is situated in a region that has one of the highest numbers of teen pregnancies in Kenya.
Where did the idea of manufacturing sanitary towels come from?
Before I joined Maasai Mara University, I was heading a reproductive health project for seven years with the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), one of the continent’s leading research organisations in health development. I realised lack of sanitary towels was affecting the lives of many girls, who would drop out of school due to pregnancy and early marriage. I was convinced that Maasai Mara University, being the centre of knowledge and innovation in the region, was perfectly placed to run with this project, which would keep girls going to school, therefore ensuring that they performed better in their studies.
What is your impression regarding menstrual hygiene among girls and young women here in Narok from the brief time you have been here?
Menstrual hygiene is not just a Narok problem. It is a national and global problem. My experience here just like in other villages I visited across the country while working as a reproductive health expert is disturbing. It is sad that due to poverty and lack of awareness and sensitisation, some of the girls resort to very unhygienic ways of dealing with their monthly periods, such as using old blankets, tattered clothes, cows skin and even leaves.
You have done a lot of research and written papers on reproductive health, what is your game plan to alleviate this situation in the region?
Besides the reusable pads, the university will also produce herbal medicine that can go a long way to reduce menstrual pain. We have, in our botanical gardens, a herb that can reduce period pain drastically – we have this knowledge and plan to share it. It is sad that many girls in Kenya cannot afford to have a period.
What are some of the cultural beliefs regarding menstruation that continue to keep girls out of school?
In more remote and rural areas, taboos play a stronger role. For example, menstruating women and girls are not allowed to enter goat pens or milk cows for fear they will contaminate the animal. There is also this common discriminatory practice that menstruating women and girls are “dirty”, there is also a restriction on the type of food they can eat and are prevented from interacting with men and boys. These beliefs discriminate against girls and women, and the university is carrying out a social engineering campaign within the campaign, the aim to do away with these misconceptions.
Have you encountered resistance as you carry out this project?
When I floated this idea for the first time, some laughed it off and many thought I was joking, wondering what business men have with sanitary towels. Interestingly, even some of the educated women we presented the idea to were sceptical about a man heading such a project. However, I was determined to get it going because from experience, I knew there was a need that we could fill. I want this project to define this university, such that when people talk of eco-friendly reusable towels that are affordable and user friendly, they will mention Maasai Mara University.
What opportunities are there in this project?
The project will create job opportunities for the locals. There will be many value addition opportunities along the supply chain, such as distribution networks, but most importantly, girls from poor families, those that live in the streets and other vulnerable members of the society who cannot afford the towels will get them free. The impact will be huge. I see a boost in the girls’ hygiene and in return reduced pressure on the health system.
They will also instil self-confidence and dignity, and the girls will be proud as they will relieve parents from the huge burden of buying sanitary towels. The project will also increase social cohesion and men and boys will no longer feel embarrassed while interacting with girls and young women during their menstrual cycles. Eventually, we hope to launch a study to establish whether the region can support the growth of cotton, a critical raw material used to make reusable towels.
The sustained sensitisation and awareness campaigns will also ensure that this will no longer be a women or girls’ problem, it will be a collective responsibility as men will also be brought on board. At the moment, however, physical campaigns have been put on hold due to Covid-19, but social media campaigns are going on.
We have partnered with others to make this project a success, for instance, we are working with businessman and industrialist Chris Kirubi, Dr Jennifer Riria of Echo Network Africa who is also the Group CEO of Kenya Women Holding and one of Africa’s leading women entrepreneurs who has, for a long time, been committed to transform girls’ education. Another partner is Bedi Investments, which is one of the leading manufacturers of textiles and garments – they have donated 10 industrial sewing machines worth Sh20 million to this project.
With the environment in mind, what plans have you put in place in regard to waste disposal?
The towels are made out of cotton and are therefore biodegradable, so there are no ecological issues, besides, these sanitary towels can be used between three to six months unlike normal ones which are for one-time use, and therefore a big concern to the environment.