In Kenya, girls from low income families who are menstruating can miss up to a week of school each month because they cannot afford to buy sanitary napkins. A partnership between the U.S. government, an aid group and a drug company is aiming to keep these girls in school while educating them about HIV prevention.
As part of a pilot project, the group has put together a kit that includes washable sanitary napkins and information on HIV/AIDS. In December, they distributed these kits to 1,000 girls and young women across Kenya.
Some of the girls giggle as they open their kits aptly named "Huru," Swahili for "freedom."
Included in the Huru bags are underwear, soap and two washable sanitary napkins.
For Kenya's poor, disposable pads are a luxury item. They usually cost more than $1 a package.
Most poor families earn only slightly more than a $1 a day which they spend on food, water and other essentials.
Sixteen-year-old Mercy Kathina explains. "The price for unga today - that is the maize flour - goes for 120 shillings and the price for the pads goes for 75 shillings. Now you see, 75 shillings with 120 (shillings), compared, they are almost the same," she said. "So the parents decide to go for the unga (rather) than the sanitary towels since, you know, some people have to eat to live."
As a result, some of Kathina's friends are out of school for up to five days a month because they don't have sanitary napkins.
To address the problem, an aid group called AmericaShare and the U.S. company Johnson & Johnson teamed up to produce a washable sanitary napkin from terry cloth and other materials.
The U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief joined in to provide information on HIV/AIDS.
In December's launch, the group distributed 250 kits to schoolgirls in the Nairobi slum of Mukuru, with plans for 750 more by the end of the year in other parts of Kenya.
"Not only are we making the pads here and we are producing them - we are generating economic development and empowerment," Lorna Macleod said. She is executive director of AmericaShare. "We want this model to be replicated all over Kenya so that other women's groups can take a loan from a microfinance buy the two machines that are needed to make these pads and make the pads, and sell them in their areas...."
Veronica Nthenya heads up the Mukuru Women Empowerment and Community Health Initiative.
Her group made the sanitary napkins distributed at the launch and was involved in the pad's design. "Actually I am very happy because my women here were not working," she said.
Project organizers say they aim to sell the kits in the future, with international donors paying for kits going to girls and young women who cannot afford them.