Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM): What if girls could stay in school and women could work healthier in the community — or at home — with something as simple as washable, reusable menstrual kits?
When Period. End of Sentence won the Oscar for best documentary short, many women learned for the first time that shame, discrimination and taboos accompany girls and women when they menstruate. And for millions of girls worldwide, beginning to menstruate is the end of their education.
I first learned about the struggles girls and women in developing countries endure while sitting in the shade of a huge tree at a remote Maasai village in Tanzania called Endulen. It was 2015, and I was surrounded by a dozen women wrapped in brightly coloured cloths and decorated with beautifully beaded jewellery.
Goats grazed nearby and babies fussed as the women explained their situation: they had no source of sanitary supplies and would resort to using rags, cornhusks, mattress stuffing and even cow dung to manage their periods. With resources this unhealthy and unreliable, staying in school or working at a job becomes increasingly difficult — or impossible.
My friend Lemali, a unique Maasai man who worked at the Serengeti camp where I first stayed on safari in 2012, translated from the Maasai language to English for me.
Could I help, they asked?
Once home, I learned more about this critical issue affecting girls and women in developing countries — without Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) and access to sanitary supplies, girls drop out of school, marry young and perpetuate the gender inequality that already touches all aspects of their lives. And for Maasai girls in East Africa, extreme poverty and discriminating cultural beliefs often create an unsolvable obstacle to getting an education.
In this traditional society where getting married and having children determine a girl’s worth, fewer than one in 100 Maasai girls complete high school and nine out of 10 are married off before age 15.
Endulen is as beautiful as it is remote; it is a World Heritage site in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area that covers more than 5,000 miles. Yet Maasai women there struggle to stay healthy and care for their families without a safe, reliable way to manage their periods. Families live in isolated huts without electricity.
How could I help?
When I came across an NGO called Days for Girls that have successfully produced a washable, reusable sanitary kit I thought: what if I could raise funds for 50 kits, as a starting point?
Something as simple as reusable sanitary supplies would help the women take care of their families and themselves and encourage girls to remain comfortably in school. I decided to create a crowdfunding campaign and the Endulen Maasai Women’s Health Project was born – to tell their story with through photography and text. We would provide girls and women with this innovative resource: washable, reusable menstrual kits and vital health education.
The response was incredible — almost every woman I talked to in the U.S. said she had never even considered this issue. When I returned to Endulen in 2016, our crowdfunding supporters made it possible to provide not 50 but 100 reusable kits for the girls and women. Lemali arranged for a female Maasai physician to conduct our meeting and the women were spell-bound as she described female anatomy, how pregnancy occurs and how the kits can last up to three years. I continued crowdfunding and, in 2017, we distributed 300 reusable kits to two secondary schools at Endulen.
After this kit distribution, the school matron, Ms. Irene Mlay, wrote to me that “this school is in a remote place, most girls are from peasant families, especially Maasai, and for them education, especially to girls, is not important. In recent years, we can see them at least responding positively to education after some family members have been educated [through] government efforts, law enforcement and sponsorship from charitable people and organizations. Otherwise girls are very early forced to be married, and they are traditionally raised with that mentality. Girls from families with problems are hardly able to get their social demands met.”
Now, after three years, we have distributed 500 reusable sanitary kits at the village, and a partnership last year with the German NGO Endulen, e.V. provided school girls with an additional 400 kits.
The kits are made locally in Tanzania which supports the community and provides a more sustainable solution. Each kit contains a fabric drawstring bag to hold the components, two water-proof shields, eight absorbent liners, two pairs of panties, plastic bags for washing and storage, a washcloth and soap.
The absorbent liner pads are sewn from brightly coloured cloth to camouflage staining and unfold to look like a washcloth so they can dry in the sun without causing embarrassment. The shields contain a waterproof liner that snaps into place. I coordinate the project from home in California and Lemali is my bridge from there to here.
I remember Ms. Mlay’s words to me about our project: “You care for our girls, it will never be worthless work. When one is close to our students, we find out most of them suffer from family issues. You are doing something hard for them to simply forget. Thank you on their behalf. [The kits are] to them more meaningful help than one can say.”
When girls and women have access to a safe, reliable method for managing their periods and health education to understand their bodies, menstruation can be seen as a healthy, natural part of growing into womanhood, not a burden that means dropping out of school or struggling to care for a family.
I return to Endulen in September to continue our project. We would love to increase our kit distribution count to 1,000 kits or more.
And that’s more than just a starting point.
Lynn Marlowe is the Founder of the Endulen Maasai Women’s Health Project.
Find out more about Lynn and her good work ~~~