Photo of two young Kenyan school girls smiling at the camera.
Schoolgirls in Nairobi, Kenya are getting their sanitary needs met, thanks to the work of Huru International. Huru is one of several organizations working to provide students with sanitary towels and underwear, which are a rare commodity in impoverished sections in Nairobi. Photo courtesy of Street News Service.

Inside a huge auditorium at Mukuru primary school in Nairobi, 500 schoolgirls from some of Nairobi’s most impoverished shanties clap their hands and stomp their feet while singing at the top of their voices. The songs are punctuated by intermittent bouts of laughter.  

Through the windows curious boys peer in to see what all the fuss is about, all just as interested in taking part in the excitement, but this is no business for them.  

To the outsider this may have the feel of a jamboree, but the reason for the outburst of high spirits is altogether a bit more serious than what appears on the surface. One of the girls talks excitedly about being given an early Christmas present.  

Laid out in the front of the girls on a long table are dozens of blue drawstring bags, each inscribed with a simple logo: a picture of a butterfly, its red and yellow wings outspread and the word “Huru” below it.  

Huru is the Kiswahili word for freedom. And from the radiance on the young girls’ faces, that’s exactly what they have been given.  

The bags, being tagged ‘Huru kits,’ are manufactured by Huru International, a charitable organization run by an American tour company Micato Safaris, and donated by the Kenyan mobile phone company Safaricom Foundation. They contain a solution to one of the country’s most nagging problems: a lack of sanitary towels.  

In every kit were eight reusable sanitary towels for each girl present, three pairs of underwear to be used with the towels, a bar of soap (to wash the towels) and a brochure featuring information on HIV/AIDS.  

As the kits were handed out, excitement grew into a crescendo as the girls shouted with joy.  

But it was not only the girls celebrating; the teachers too have a reason to smile.  

“I’m deeply relieved,” said Magdalene Ng’ang’a, a teacher in one of the beneficiary schools, St. Bakhita.  

“This (donation) is very important for me. It removes a big burden from my shoulders as the girls keep asking for sanitary towels from us ladies (teachers). We are forced to give them our towels. But you cannot afford to give all of them. Some even ask us to buy them panties.  

“We request other people to step forward and buy the sanitary towels for more girls as the problem is prevalent in many schools.”  

Too much ado about some sanitary towels and some underwear? Aren’t sanitary towels just mundane things, almost a fundamental right for adolescent girls and women?  

True for many in the world, but not for these girls.  

For most, sanitary pads are a luxury in a country where the priority remains getting food on the table.  

These girls and most impoverished women in this country end up going for unhealthy alternatives like pieces of old clothes, bits of mattresses, leaves, newspaper, even shared sanitary towels.  

Statistics show schoolgirls lose an average of four days a month due to menstruation, putting them at a huge disadvantage with their male counterparts.  

The problem is going a long way to undermining the second Millenium Development Goal, which seeks to ensure “that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling.”  

Indeed, a study conducted by the Federation of African Women Educationists (FAWE) in 2005 found that about 500,000 Kenyan girls miss school every month because they cannot afford sanitary towels.  

In the same year, a study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed that one in 10 school-age girls in Africa either miss school or drop out entirely because of lack of sanitation.  

It’s a major concern for Kenya which introduced free compulsory primary education eight years ago, a move which greatly enhanced enrolment in schools countrywide.  

In an effort to ensure girls compete on an equal footing with boys, Micato Safaris started Huru International to manufacture reusable sanitary pads to be distributed to thousands of schoolgirls from poor families in the country in 2008.  

Huru International, with the help of its partners the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, Johnson & Johnson and Warner Brothers, amongst others, set up a workshop in the heart of Mukuru Kwa Njenga, one of Nairobi’s slums, to develop the reusable sanitary towels.  

“Since 2008, we have mostly been doing research to develop an appropriate product. The official distribution of the sanitary towels started only in February this year,” said Ms. Wanjiru Keffa, senior administrative manager of AmericaShare, the nonprofit arm of Micato Safaris.  

Huru International started as a program under AmericaShare but is now an independent charitable organization under Micato Safaris.  

The organization now believes it has come up with sanitary towels, made of several layers of cotton, that can be washed and re-used for up to a year. Samples of the products have already been submitted to the country’s standards body, the Kenya Bureau of Standards, for assessment and Huru is confident that they will be approved.  

Huru workshop is run by 60 workers hired from the local community and produces up to 1,000 sanitary towels daily. To date, Huru has distributed more than 10,000 kits, costing $25 each, to needy schoolgirls in various parts of the country with the help of its partners.  

Besides Huru International, various other organizations and individuals have grappled with the lack of sanitary towels in schools. 

In 2008, P&G partnered with a local NGO, Girl Child Network (GCN), to provide 3.2 million pieces of their Always disposable sanitary towels to over 15,000 girls over a period of two years under a program called “Always Keeping Girls in School.”  

Johnson & Johnson has also been involved in donating sanitary pads to schoolgirls.