The girls gave a roar and a clap; each was excited about the gift wrapped in yellow nylon that was, at that very moment, being handed over to them. It was World Menstrual Hygiene Day, and one particular NGO had, in its benevolence, provided girls enrolled in a government high school in Northern Nigeria with a pack of 8 disposable sanitary pads which, for the majority of girls, would likely last throughout the entirety of their monthly periods.

But the unanswered question remains ‘how then do girls from low-income families sustain the purchase of sanitary pads for their monthly periods when the free one has been exhausted and there is no benefactor in sight’  Logically, they would revert to using clothes, rags and tissue paper as alternative menstrual absorbent material, which puts them at risk of infections. But do you blame them?  In Nigeria, disposable sanitary pads costs between N300 ($0.83) and N350 ($0.97) individually, and depending on brand, come in packs of 7 or 8. New brands of disposable sanitary pads have recently been introduced into the market; in pieces of two per sachet, which costs N70 to N80 in retail stores and is the equivalent of N280 (0.78USD) when added up to 8 individual pads. This is an affordable option for girls to purchase sanitary products daily, when they have the money.

 

Some instructions for disposable sanitary pads state that they should be changed every 3-4 hours, which approximates to one person using 6 or more sanitary pads per day. A girl with a heavy flow and a 5-day cycle would find a pack of 8 sanitary pads inadequate.

 

When financial barriers make it difficult to keep a sufficient supply of products, girls might substitute with alternatives like tissue paper, used clothes, or leaves, all of which are unsanitary and can predispose them to reproductive tract infections. In a report by UNFPA, Miss Dlamini, the minister of women in South Africa said: “According to research, up to seven million schoolgirls in South Africa cannot afford sanitary pads.” South Africa is not alone in this sense. For the 92% families who live below $2 USD per day in Nigeria, disposable sanitary pads are a luxury when compared to basic household necessities such as food.

 

The psychological impacts of poverty are well-evidence, but for girls of menstrual age, the sight of blood in their underwear each month is the physical embodiment of socio-economic status – and the ensuing pressures – of their family. It reminds them of their inability to afford disposable sanitary pads and stay hygienic during menstruation; leaving them with the question: “Why was I born a girl?”

According to UNICEF, an estimated 1 in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa miss school at some point during their period. In another report by Global Citizen, 10% of the girls in sub-Saharan Africa miss four days of school every four weeks, resulting in a loss of 10-20% of school time due to menstruation. It is therefore no surprise that some girls stay home during their periods to wash, wait and dry the used clothes or rags for later usage. For many, this is preferable to attending school and facing the risk of embarrassment if their clothes are stained.


Unless free disposable sanitary pads are given to these girls in much the same way as scholarship awards are given – essentially, from secondary school level to the university level – to such a point as which the girls are able to afford to purchase them, there is a need to explore other sustainable alternatives, some of which are presented below.

 

Hygienic reusable menstrual absorbent products such as menstrual cups have been recorded to be economical over a long period of use and are environmentally friendly. Research shows that a cup can last up to 10 years and costs about $10 (N3,612). This is equivalent to the amount spent on disposable sanitary pads in 12 months. With proper menstrual hygiene and management, a girl can comfortably navigate her periods without financial or shame-based anxiety.

 

In addition, there are affordable sanitary pads developed from organic materials. An example is the Green Pads (My Periodkit), made from wasted plantain stems, which costs less than $0.3 (N108.5), and have already been adopted by 2000 women in a community in rural Nigeria.

More research is needed to test the acceptability and safety of these innovations among girls. Once tested, Governments should ensure that appropriate sanitary products are available and affordable to girls. This coupled with other solution-based interventions will ensure that our girls do not have to miss school because of a normal physiological process in the body.

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