Menstruation is a natural and healthy process for women’s bodies, yet it remains a taboo subject in public and private settings for communities around the world, including sub-Saharan Africa. One of the taboo’s ultimate impacts is that it inhibits women and girls from participating in regular but important daily activities. From a survey taken in Mt. Elgon, Kenya, 51% of respondents said that menstruation should be kept secret and 34% of women interviewed shared that they did not feel confident in their ability to find adequate menstrual products. Unless women and girls have access to menstrual products, it is often considered inappropriate for them to leave the house during their period. Young girls may not go out and play with friends, students may not go to school, and working women may not go about their livelihood and business activities. Simultaneously, men in the community, who tend to manage household finances, do not consider menstrual products something to be budgeted for at the household level.
This type of environment presents clear barriers towards economic empowerment for women. Women of all ages miss out on education, workdays, and business growth opportunities. While Village Enterprise is, at its core, a poverty alleviation organization, 80% of our program participants are women, and we know that gender equity is essential for true economic inclusion. Data from Village Enterprise’s randomized controlled trial (RCT) shows that the program has a proportionate positive impact on income and savings for female-headed households. Also, women participating in the Village Enterprise program reported increased standing in the community and subjective well-being. Even with these positive results, Village Enterprise knew we needed to do more.
Village Enterprise knew that our program could improve women’s lives, but we were also very self-aware that we are no experts in the menstrual health field. For us to help address these barriers, we started to search for a partner. Then in 2019, The Starbucks Foundation facilitated an introduction between Village Enterprise and Days for Girls, a nonprofit that works to eliminate the stigma associated with menstruation by training entrepreneurs to produce and sell long-lasting, washable menstrual pads while also advocating for policies that support menstrual health management (MHM).
It was a match. Soon after the introduction Days for Girls and Village Enterprise began working together in Mt. Elgon, Kenya, in November 2020 through a two-year program funded by The Starbucks Foundation. Critical to Village Enterprise entrepreneurs’ success in Mt. Elgon (and many other rural regions of Kenya) is a shift in social norms surrounding menstruation. Breaking down barriers around menstruation discussions is also incredibly important for those Days for Girls enterprises producing and selling reusable pads, because a reluctance to discuss the topic can make it challenging to market the product. Advocacy and education are conduits to open conversations about menstruation and are essential starting points.
We have already started seeing changes in Mt. Elgon community norms as a result of the joint advocacy effort between Village Enterprise and Days for Girls. In community meetings with the local leaders, Days for Girls staff provided comprehensive education about menstrual health and its impact on women and girls’ lives in the community. Many leaders in the meeting had never considered menstrual healthcare an issue, even within their own households. Still, this session enabled them to recognize specific examples and share stories about how inadequate menstrual health management has negatively impacted women’s lives. At the end of the meetings, leaders expressed commitment to improving and advocating for improved menstrual health.
“If Mt. Elgon becomes a menstrual health management example, given the history of the community, this will be one of the best success stories,” says Bridgit Kurgat, Days for Girls Program Manager.
Village Enterprise’s Kenya Country Director Nancy Chumo also expressed her enthusiasm for the project. “Bringing a discussion of menstrual health into the public domain is a great milestone in a conservative community such as Mt. Elgon. It is anticipated that the positive impact will be realized through the project, including confidence of the community and men to make menstrual health a part of the agenda in all realms of public life.”
While the project is still in its initial stages, both organizations are excited to share transformation stories as participants begin small businesses while also changing norms that have long presented barriers to female entrepreneurs.