Roughly half of all girls in slums of Kenya have sex with older men in exchange for sanitary napkins. In response to these estimates, healthcare advocates are distributing napkins to girls as part of a nationwide campaign.
Health educator Lydiah Njoroge, a field officer for the Freedom for Girls Program, an initiative of HEART (Health Education Africa Resource Team), distributes towels to girls in Mathare, a collection of Nairobi ghettos where poverty is so severe that girls are unable to purchase even the most affordable brands.
"The least [expensive] in the market is 40 shillings ... a packet that has eight pieces in it," says Njoroge. "So, because this girl cannot afford 40 shillings -- their mother, their parents are poor, they have other things to provide food and shelter - sanitary towels are not a priority. So the girl just goes [and] has sex with an older man, most of the time not the same man -- they would have one this month, another one next month, so they are very, very at risk of having HIV."
In other words, for 40 shillings - about 50 cents - girls and young women repeatedly put their lives at risk.
Lack of education
According to Njoroge and fellow teachers in Mathare, about 50 percent of girls between 10 and 19 have had sex with older men to pay for a range of basic items. But sanitary napkins are a uniquely critical resource: Not only are they vital to a young woman's health, but, without them, schoolgirls are forced to stay home during menstrual cycles, missing up to five days of class each month.
"It depends on the immediate need," says Janet Nzioka, deputy head teacher of Mathare's St. James School, explaining that girls use any remaining funds for food and clothing. "You can get food maybe at home, but, you know, sanitary towels, some of that you have to buy, so they prefer buying."
Lack of sex education at home, she adds, is another significant part of the problem.
"Let me say that people are becoming wicked," Nzioka says. "When these men approach these girls, they give in. Why? Because the parents sometimes are far from them, they have no time to talk about sex education with them. So when any man approaches them and they are ready to offer money in exchange for sex, they just say yes."
Twelve-year-old Ivone, a student from the Mathare Community Development Education Center, is all too familiar with these exchanges.
"When I’m just walking on the way, they call you," she says. "But my friends, sometimes they go. Sometimes they don’t go. But me, I said no to sex, but some are poor and they want that, they tell those men to give them money, then they do sex."
A 14-year-old friend, she says, has had sex with men her father’s age for money to buy napkins.
"They did sex, then the men were not having money, they were just lying," says Ivone. "Then, after doing sex, they left her there."
Njoroge says resources in the slums are so scarce that it's often difficult for girls to find any kind of substitute materials.
"These other materials are not also available," she says. "They have three, four, five siblings after them. So you tear a blanket today - tomorrow, in a year, you don’t have any blanket to cover yourself with."
But without sanitary napkins in particular, she says, long-term life goals are compromised, which is why the distribution campaign helps to keep girls like Ivone in school longer.
"Last year, [after] the national examinations, the Grade Eight exams, I was excited to hear that girls in most schools that I had been to during the distribution had topped [passed], and are being called to good secondary schools," says Njoroge. "That girl, you know, she told me she has a dream of being a nurse, a teacher, and in the next 10 years she will be that."
All because something as basic as a sanitary napkin, a year's supply of which, according to Freedom for Girls, costs roughly $5 per girl.