Investing in Girls' Education with a Focus on Health
What is the simplest thing you can do to change the world? I’ve asked myself that question constantly since I moved to Kenya in 2001. My experiences have led to my wholehearted belief that investing in girls’ education is truly the best thing we can do to change the world.
And how to best invest in girls' education? I found my answer in a peculiar package... a sanitary pad.
You may be asking, how can a pad dramatically change a woman’s life? Considering that pads are a luxury out of reach to 80% of women across East Africa, they are items that have quite the potential for impact.
Unable to afford pads, solutions such as old rags or torn mattress foam are used. Unhygienic and uncomfortable, they cause girls to stay home from school to avoid embarrassment from a likely accident. No woman should be inhibited for a week each month. She should be free to study, work, and live on her terms. Access to pads shouldn’t be a matter of socioeconomic status—rather, access to hygienic menstrual solutions is a human right that should be denied to no one.
Think about how missing a month or more at your job or school would impact your life, for something that was completely outside of your control. I imagine you wouldn’t get off easy. You’d be fired or fail, hijacking your future plans. Your self-esteem would take quite the hit, and you’d be vulnerable.
In Kenya, one million girls are missing up to 1.5 months of school because of their period, and the drop-out rate is twice that of boys starting at puberty. When you consider that staying in school means girls are four times less likely to contract HIV, five times less likely to become teen mothers, and can earn 10 to 20 percent more, it becomes clear that we need to work on keeping these young women in the classroom.
I founded ZanaAfrica with the goal of providing a holistic and sustainable solution to keep girls in school. Pads plus health education wins back 75 percent of lost learning days, and unlocks girls’ productivity and health. At ZanaAfrica, we work day in and day out to ensure that women and girls live up to their potential as focused students, productive workers, and informed mothers.
We believe that pads for girls, though crucial, are only one part of the equation. We are developing new, more affordable pads that can be distributed widely to meet womens' needs and offer a sustainable and scalable business model. We are reinventing the pad—leveraging agricultural byproducts, streamlining the process, and creating a high-quality, radically affordable pad that helps solve an environmental problem rather than creating one.
We have also designed engaging comics to provide critical health education to girls in a way that is fun, standardized, and easily sharable. Young women can better take control of their lives and livelihoods and inspire those around them to do the same. We constantly iterate and learn from girls to stay relevant, and we test each message to ensure impact.
Since 2013, we have kept 10,000 girls in school with pads, underwear, and health education. Many of these are documented on our mobile app, which helps coordinate national distribution of pads to schoolgirls and is helping to streamline health education delivery.
And when we see a 90 percent increase in self-respect, a 95 percent increase in self-esteem, and a 100 percent improvement in school attendance, we know we’re onto something big.