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Maxi-Pads - if they’re washable, reusable - are Maxi-Important to Subsaharan Africa Girls

Posted: Tue, September 06, 2016 | By: Misc./BBI

In Subsaharan Africa, millions of girls are disastrously inconvenienced by their monthly periods.

Menstrual products are too expensive for many families in the vast region, where 75% live on $2 a day or less, especially in rural areas. When your large family is hungry (Subsaharan Africa has the highest fertility rate in the world) it simply isn’t affordable to pay $1+ for one maxi-pad. Additionally, in rural villages the stores are often out of stock.

Menstruation is a taboo topic here, surrounded by a “culture of silence.” Parents and teachers regard the subject as uncomfortable, shameful, and embarrassing - many choose to avoid the conversation entirely. Girls endure menstruation as an isolating experience, frequently learning how to “deal with it” from their peers.

GEM girls holding GEMpads
GEM girls holding GEMpads

What they learn… isn’t pretty.

Subsaharan options to sanitary pads are ripped-up scraps of old cloth from bedsheets, washcloths, and old t-shirts, or pieces of foam mattress, toilet paper, bark, leaves, banana fibers, sand, stone, and dried mud. Invariably these DIY constructions are unhygienic and uncomfortable. Perhaps worst of all - they’re ineffective, with severe consequences for a humiliating leak: girls suffer bullying from classmates and male teachers. Private changing rooms for girls are also rare in rural areas.

The result of this is millions of Subsaharan girls do not go to school when it’s their period. Additionally, they often miss school due to infections and genital sores from the unhealthy solutions they employ.

Absence of affordable menstruation products is a major barrier to girls education - menstruating girls miss 4-5 days per month, adding up to 20% of the academic year. Many girls drop out of school entirely, increasing their likelihood of teen pregnancy and early marriage, and reducing their future economic opportunities.

Only 17 per cent of Subsaharan girls are enrolled at the secondary level and twice as many girls drop out of high schools as boys. An estimate from the Ugandan government claims 23 percent of girls drop out of education once they hit puberty.

Summarizing, the menstruation problems faced by girls:

  • expense of commercial sanitary pads
  • girls stay home when they are menstruating rather than attend school
  • unhygienic menstrual material
  • lack of privacy for changing menstrual materials
  • no soap for washing
  • lack of counseling and guidance
  • fear caused by cultural myths
  • embarrassment and low self-esteem

AFRIpads offers an excellent solution - washable, reusable pads that last for up to one year - at the low price of $4.65 in a kit (with four pads). The company - based in Kampala, Uganda, but started by an American & Canadian couple - has sold over 500,000 pads, either through sales or NGOs who have purchased and distributed them.

The AFRIpad design is an ultra-absorbent, natural, unscented “all-in-one pad” that buttons securely into a pair of underwear. After use, the pad folds conveniently for easy storage before washing.

One happy AFRIpads customer reports:

“Before I got AFRIpads I was using pieces of old clothes during my menstruation. These were making me feel very uncomfortable, as they used to leak. So everybody could see I was in my period, making me feel very small. Now with AFRIpads I feel so comfortable. And as I know they won’t leak, AFRIpads is making me feel safe. And the best thing is that they can be used for 12+ months, so they also help in saving money.”

What could be better?


Brighter Brains Institute (BBI) is California non-profit that asks contributors - via its “Marketplace” - to purchase and donate GEMpads. These washable pads are handcrafted by 206 Ugandan secondary school girls in GEM (Girls Education Movement) who need income to remain in school.

GEM’s goal is to encourage orphaned, poor, and vulnerable girls to continue their education by conducting fund-raising activities. Donors who buy GEMpads help Ugandan girls in two ways:

1) You provide a free washable pad to a girl (in one of BBI’s twelve secular schools), enabling her to go to school when she has her period. 2) You provide $25 in funds to the girls in the GEM group; this enables them to pay tuition and stay in school.

Donations for GEMpads receive thank you cards (in jpeg) from girls who received your gift.

Menstrual pads have a surprisingly recent and interesting history: Benjamin Franklin’s invention - a disposable pad to stop wounded soldiers from bleeding - was adapted by Johnson & Johnson as the first commercially available pad in 1887. Washable pads are also not “new” or unique to the developing world. They’re available in the USA, for example, in brands such as GladRags and Lunapads.


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