Blood Sisters Menstrual Cups Help Keep Kenyan Girls in School
Once Lavender, 17, has finished her homework, she sweeps the charcoal out of the windowless, adobe kitchen, spreads out a straw sleeping mat over the place where the fire was just burning and packs up her schoolbooks for the next day in a white plastic bag from the supermarket. The bag's handles have already been stretched into thin strips.
Lavender also has a bag made of cloth, but it is so small that not even an apple would fit inside. Instead, it holds one of Lavender's prized possessions, one she proudly shows to anyone who asks: a small bell-shaped object made of silicone. Her menstrual cup.
Lavender received it two years ago from Golda Ayodo, 38, a mother of two from Masogo who, together with other women from the community in western Kenya, works to ensure that girls like Lavender can continue going to school even when they have their periods.
In a country where a packet of sanitary napkins costs almost as much as a day's wages, such a thing is hardly a matter of course.
Out of desperation, many girls shove rags or cotton in their underpants, or even sand. Anything that is absorbent. But they often don't have enough confidence in such improvised solutions to go to school for fear that they will soil their valuable school uniforms or embarrass themselves in front of their classmates.
Kenya's Education Ministry estimates that girls miss a total of 156 school days during four years of high school because they skip classes during their periods. Missing that much schooling translates to worse grades and reduced prospects of a well-paid job. That is something that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has also realized. Two months before Kenyan elections, he quickly signed a law requiring state schools to supply sanitary napkins to female students. His Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, made the same pledge last year, but he has failed to fulfill it. In Kenya, the government intends to make 500 million shillings, around 4.3 million euros, available for the initiative each year.
But will they reach the girls?
A state-sponsored program has existed in Kenya since 2011 that aims to provide sanitary napkins to schoolgirls. At Lavender's school, though, the money available for the program is only sufficient for one packet of sanitary napkins per month - for 115 girls. "In an emergency, the girls can pick up a sanitary napkin from the secretary's office, but only once. The next day, they have to find an alternative solution," says Agneta Opiti, principal of the Padre Pio School.
The Golden Girls
Golda Ayodo believes the answer lies in menstrual cups. They only have to be emptied once a day and they keep for 10 years. A perfect solution, she says. She travels from school to school, explaining the cups to the girls. Her classes are reminiscent of motivational seminars: She jumps around and claps her hands, cursing and exulting in Swahili.
"It can't look like a normal class, it has to be fun," she says afterward. "Otherwise, the girls won't use the cups."
Golda has achieved what many girls in Masogo dream of: escaping village poverty through education. She studied business administration in India, but returned to Kenya and now teaches at the university in Kisumu, a city on Lake Victoria, one hour from Masogo. She became a women's rights activist by chance, after attending a prize ceremony at her husband's former elementary school, where the best students in each subject were to be recognized. Golda and her husband had been invited as guests of honor. The class included 30 boys and seven girls and none of the girls went home with prizes.
The teachers said they were too lazy. But the girls said they had too much to do.
They told Golda that after coming home from school, they had to clean, cook and walk several kilometers to fetch water, firewood and groceries - and how they couldnt keep their eyes open when they were doing their homework. And they also told her that once a month, they were afraid to go to school out of fear of soiling their school uniforms with menstrual blood.
Golda spoke with their teachers, collected donations for sanitary napkins and new school uniforms and met regularly with the girls. And she was there for the next year's award ceremony, during which the girls walked away with eight of the 10 distinctions that were handed out.
That was seven years ago. Now, more than 100 women in the area are involved in the Golden Girls Foundation, which Golda started. Each of them looks after five to seven girls. And instead of sanitary napkins, they distribute menstrual cups.
Golda first tried out the sanitary device four years ago, having been given one by the founders of Ruby Cup, two of whom are from Denmark and one from Germany. Their idea is to donate a menstrual cup to a girl in Africa for every one sold in Europe.
Time to Study
Since then, Golda has distributed more than 6,000 Ruby Cups. Lavender was one of the first girls in her class to try one out. "In the beginning, I had a hard time with it, but after a while, I figured it out," she says. "Now, I can't imagine anything else. It saves so much money."
A packet of eight to 10 of the most basic sanitary napkins costs 50 shillings, around 40 euro cents. More absorbent pads, or ones with wings, cost as much as 150 shillings, the equivalent of 1.30 euros. In 2011, Kenya became one of the first countries in the world to eliminate taxes on women's hygiene products. For many women in Kenya, though, sanitary napkins remain unaffordable.
On most days, Lavender's mother doesn't even earn the 50 shillings necessary to supply the family's only lamp with solar power. That means that Lavender usually does her homework by the light of a kerosene lamp. She only ever has time to do her homework after dark. When she gets home from school at 6 p.m., she first has to fetch water, cook and do the dishes.
Lavender got her first period at 15, which is also when her mother decided she was old enough to be responsible for collecting water in their 20-liter (5.25-gallon) canister.
The result is that every evening, she wades into a pool of filthy water and pushes the mouth of the yellow canister below the surface until it is full. She then drags it to the shore, winds a red scarf around her hand, sets the strap on her head and heaves the canister onto it. With 20 kilograms (44 pounds) balancing on her head, she makes her way back on the muddy path, wearing only flipflops. Lavender's favorite subject in school is economics and she hopes to go to university one day. Just like Golda.
Author: Verena Töpper
Translation: Charles Hawley
Photos and Videos: Maria Feck
Editing: Lisa Erdmann and Jens Radü
Fact Checking: Almut Cieschinger and Claudia Niesen
Copy Editing: Christine Sommerschuh
Programming: Anna Behrend and Chris Kurt
Coordination of the Expedition BeyondTomorrow Project: Anna Behrend
This report is part of the Expedition #BeyondTomorrow Project.