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Real-Women Sanitary Pads: An Easy Way to Increase Girls' Access to Education (Updated)

Real-Women is a social enterprise that will offer girls in Nigeria the choice to make decisions about their health by improving access to feminine health education and affordable sanitary products using an innovative model that harnesses education and markets to make a difference in gender empowerment.

Photo of Dr. Mike Iyanro
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The single most important challenge facing Nigeria today is breaking the grip of poverty. The social situation is characterized by growing number of HIV/AIDS orphans, unemployment, child labour and violence. Girls and women of all ages still have a very limited say over their lives and in particular over their sexuality. 
The main problems faced by women and girls are: 
-The expense of commercial sanitary pads; 
-absenteeism where girls stay at home rather than attending school when menstruating; 
-unhygienic ways to dry menstrual materials; 
-leakage from poor-quality protection materials;   
-limited education about the facts of menstruation; 
-limited access to counseling and guidance; 
-fear caused by cultural myths; 
-embarrassment and low self esteem; 
-and the unsupportive attitudes of some men. 

About 65% of women and girls in Nigeria cannot afford sanitary pads. Evidence suggests that the period around puberty is one in which many girls drop out of school or are absent from school for significant periods of time.  Limited access to safe, affordable, convenient and culturally appropriate methods for dealing with menstruation has far reaching implications for rights and physical, social and mental well-being of many adolescent girls in Nigeria and other developing countries as well. It undermines sexual and reproductive health and well-being and has been shown to restrict access to education. Faced with the complete lack of sanitary pads, this can only mean that the girls miss school for considerable period of time and this has negative impact on the quality of learning they receive, their overall academic performance, their retention and transition through the education system. Meanwhile, UNESCO estimates that one in 10 African adolescent girls miss school during menses and eventually drop out because of menstruation related issues. 
Furthermore many adolescent girls and women in Nigeria have limited knowledge about their bodies, especially in relation to menstruation and sexual and reproductive health. Menstruation is treated with silence and as a taboo topic with menstrual blood viewed as unclean and harmful, which limits women’s and adolescent girls’ access to relevant and important information about their bodies. 
In schools, there is usually a lack of physiological education. This is often attributed to predominantly male science teachers feeling uncomfortable about teaching such a subject, especially if they have not received formal training in how to do so. At home, advice (traditionally given by aunts and grandmothers) is often insufficient. Older women often considered ‘wise’ are also often illiterate or uneducated themselves, and may recount and reinforce myths that are biologically incorrect. 
The inaccessibility of menstrual products results in embarrassment, anxiety and shame when girls and women stain their clothes, which is stigmatizing. Once girls start missing school they are far more likely to be exposed to other risks such as early pregnancy and marriage, HIV/AIDS and female genital mutilation. Increasing girl’s completion of education cycles is a critical component of efforts to build their wider empowerment and in particular for ensuring that they are more able to be involved in decision making over all aspects of their lives including over their reproductive and sexual health rights. Additionally, inaccessibility of menstrual products compromises the effective uptake of family planning services. This is occasioned by the fact that girls who cannot afford the disposable sanitary towels more often are more at risk of manipulation by men who promise to provide them with the money to buy the pads. Eventually they are forced to have sexual relationship which ultimately leads to unwanted pregnancies and further risks of maternal and child health related problems as they are normally not prepared to take care of children at these early ages. 
What is our Solution?
1. Providing Affordable and accessible sanitary pads
A study in Nigeria by Ministry of Education in 2009 found that sanitary pads provision coupled with sexual and reproductive health education could reduce absenteeism amongst girls by over 3.5 days per month and brought other important benefits in terms of girls self esteem and self confidence.  Findings from a survey conducted by Real-Women Team in collaboration with ALWAYS in 2012 among piloted users of distributed pads revealed that only 5% of the respondents were unable to attend school during menstruation solely because of cramps/pain. If this is compared with school absenteeism prior to the pilot (27%), then the use of pads arguably significantly improved the school attendance of the pilot group. 
Making accessible and affordable disposable/ washable or reusable sanitary pads made of 100-percent cotton from locally sourced fabric available in Nigeria (Real-Women Pads) will radically change the status quo. The goal of the enterprise is to empower the vulnerable girls and women through provision of low-cost, affordable and accessible pads and capacity building on menstrual hygiene management and reproductive health for improved performance and self esteem. This will be done through production and distribution of disposable (for areas where there is proper sanitation methods) and reusable (for areas with low sanitation methods and audience choices) sanitary pads as well as ensuring provision of menstrual hygiene management education and facilities to girls in primary and secondary schools in Nigeria and other West African countries. By acquiring knowledge on menstrual hygiene management, the overall health status of the girls will be enhanced as myths and misconceptions that surround puberty and menstruation will also be demystified. 
The vision of producing Real-Women pads is to ensure empower girls and women to be in charge of their own socio-economic development while the mission is to produce high quality re-usable and disposable sanitary pads responding to clients’ tastes and preferences for self comfort and personal hygiene. 
Furthermore, the project intends to promote the social marketing and distribution of both disposable and reusable sanitary pads depending on user preference (that were developed and made in Nigeria and meet required quality and safety standards) to marginalized girls in selected poor and marginalized communities. The promotion and distribution of both disposable and reusable pads will also be an entry point for the promotion of wider action on menstrual hygiene and reproductive health rights focused on schools and involving the wider community. An integrated approach of this type has not been carried out in these areas before. The use of disposable pads currently on the market is estimated to be 2,500 Naira ($16) per girl per year.  However, the use of the disposable pad will suit those in the urban settings more. In rural areas where transport networks are often poor, ensuring a regular supply of disposable pads at an affordable cost is likely to be challenging. Ensuring the safe disposal of disposable pads is also a major challenge as unsafe disposal carries with it attendant environmental and health risks. One packet of the reusable pads that will be promoted through this project is sufficient to meet the sanitary needs of a girl for a year at a cost of 300 Naira ($2.5).  The adoption of reusable pads is therefore more likely to be sustainable in the long term in the rural and peri-urban areas whether it is financed by development partners, from household expenditures or by implementing a sustainable model like “the Mayenya Model”. In the model, the school and parents take their responsibility in providing the pads to the girls by paying a sanitation fee on yearly basis. This model also promotes gender equality, as every parent have to pay for every pupil. Though Reusable pads of the type to be used will also be more environmentally friendly than the disposable type, nevertheless, we want to provide both for convenience and preference purposes and the training we will provide will cover safe disposal and management aspects.   
Using the promotion and distribution of disposable and reusable pads as an entry point for engagement on wider issues related to menstrual hygiene and reproductive health, the project will also demonstrate how opportunities for contact with girls and communities on a specific issue can also be used to promote and develop wider action on issues that affect girls health status, access to quality education and the achievement of better education outcomes and will identify appropriate strategies for doing so.  In the meantime, campaigns to demystify menstruation will be rolled out at grassroots school levels. These campaigns will aim to make adolescent girls recognize that they are contributing to the silence and stigma around menstruation and encourage them to use their voices to talk about the topic and themselves, and to demand their rights.  
2. Feminine Health Education Pair Program (Women safety educational curriculum in schools)
Real-Women -Pair program will link middle and high school, universities, mono/polytechnics and colleges of education classrooms with partner-classrooms abroad.  Trained university and colleges of education student mentors will facilitate the exchange ensuring high quality partnerships as well as girl-to-girl mentorship opportunities. Through a unique curriculum that encourages collaborative learning, Real-Women will create global communities building safety space for women and girls while strengthening local communities via local projects. To do this:

a) Real-Women will partner with organizations, company, universities and colleges to:
-Establish an innovative service-learning program that empowers university students as Feminine Health Education facilitators in local, public middle and high school classrooms.
-Link campuses across the developing world to a network of engaged universities, allowing for student facilitators to work together across borders as advocates for their classrooms.        
 b) Provide middle, high school, colleges of education, and universities with:
-A Women safety educational curriculum that builds critical thinking, problem-solving on women issues and awareness of shared global and local challenges in the women rights domain.
- engage a team of trained university student facilitators to lead glocal learning and Women safety competency curriculum once a week.
Young women and girls participants will be able to communicate directly with their project pair group as well as with the entire Real-Women community... here's how!
- Pen-pal letter correspondence
- Password protected internet message-boards  
- Real-Women’s Conversation Bursts 
- Read news from participants all over the developing world
- learn about the communities of the Project Representative from their 
Representative Blog entries 

Real-Women will partner with universities around the developing world to offer a unique 4-semester global leadership and professional development opportunity to university students, by engaging them as facilitators of a Feminine Health education curriculum in local middle/high school classrooms.
We will empower university students with the skills needed for careers in today’s increasingly globalized world especially on women issues. Our university student Project representatives will establish collaborative working relationships with university peers abroad and comprehensive curricular plans to guide their mentee middle/high school young women and girls in effective, cross-idea exchange.
Real-Women will transform university students into women leaders through innovative trainings that build responsible, glocal citizenship among the next generation, empowering students with crucial life-skills needed in today’s increasingly globalized world.
Real-Women will provide an opportunity for middle/high school educators to offer international connections and experiential learning opportunities to their students by easily incorporating project-based glocal learning and idea exchange into existing curriculum. Real-Women will pairs classrooms with partner-classrooms abroad. Trained university students will facilitate the exchange and adapt our curriculum to fit the specific classroom in which they work, providing girl-to-girl mentorship opportunities, and exposing secondary school students to their local higher education institution.

Explain your idea in one sentence.

Real-Woman reduces the number of missed school days by providing affordable sanitary pads and health education.

What is the need you are trying to solve?

Nigeria’s 80.2 million women and girls have significantly worse life chances than men and also their sisters in comparable societies. One week every month, periods are a predictable irritation. For adolescent school girls in Nigeria, menstruation is not just inconvenient; it can be a significant barrier to leading a healthy and productive life. In Nigeria, a woman’s period arrives with heavy cultural and social baggage. When a low-income Nigerian girl starts her period, it is unlikely her parents will offer any solutions or explanations due to cultural issues. She will be unaware of how and why her body is changing and will make do by tearing up old Ankara cloth for rags. She will miss up to five days of school every month because she has no way to reliably absorb her menstrual flow. She will fall behind. She will drop out of school.

Who will benefit from this idea and how would you monitor its success?

Girls can miss 5-7 days of school a month due to inadequate sanitary protection, and 25% of girls in Nigeria drop out of school upon first menstruation. Due to a culture of stillness, girls don't learn about proper hygiene. This contributes to the 46% of Nigerian women suffering from gynecological morbidity, including cervical cancer and RTIs. Every pad sold and course completed will reduce these risks for school girls and will give them the choice to attend school, breaking the vicious cycle of inequality. The programme will develop an elaborate monitoring and evaluation framework with clear process and output indicators outlined in a logframe. A baseline assessment will be done to establish the existing status in the schools where the program will be implemented. At the end of the programme an evaluation will be undertaken with key lessons documented. The baseline analysis will form the basis of the evaluation within the schools. Program outcomes will be measured by determining whether, and how, the sanitary needs of vulnerable girls are being adequately met. To do this, the program will measure the reduction in school absenteeism as well as the psychosocial well-being of girls, and the degree to which their needs are met and their voice heard. Measurements will be made qualitatively and quantitatively before and after the program against a baseline survey instrument designed by a monitoring and evaluation expert before the commencement of the implementation. The technical resources that will be required during the implementation of this project mainly remains ensuring the product (Real-Women pads) improvement and constant quality control. This technical support will be provided by our technical and research partner. The other functional support that will be required include engaging consultants to undertake baseline and evaluation studies before and after project implementation. Still, the project will engage the services of a qualified accountant to ensure proper documentation and accountability to the donors and the beneficiaries. However, Real-Women Sanitary pads will be sold in the Nigerian market first. This market is growing steadily lately. 100 millions of pads are imported every year in Nigeria. Annual growth of the market is 20% in terms of money, and 15% in pieces. At present, a rapid growth of everyday use pads market was detected (to 30%); the same tendency is relevant for ultra-thin pads. Both fiscal and legal entities will act as buyers. Pricing policy of the enterprise will depend on current market prices. In the beginning the price will be 35% lower than the average. Marketing research shows that such strategy will allow the enterprise to enter the market, find its niche, and take over it. Net sales profit will reach USD 11,309 millions.

Who would be best equipped to implement this idea in the real world? You? Your organisation? Another organisation or entity?

Anyone with social innovation interest can carry out this idea especially in the developing countries. However, OUR VISION IS TO BUILD THE WORLDS BIGGEST CONGLOMERATE that will be responsible for bringing up diverse solutions on women issues in a socially, environmentally and business oriented manner. The Real-Woman team represents people from all walks of life. A significant number of our team members once were in low socioeconomic neighborhoods or have otherwise experienced what it is like to be an underprivileged individual. These team members are crucial to our effort to adapt our services to best benefit our target demographic, as they can tell us what the statistics is; they can describe to us firsthand the problems disadvantaged girls have and the solutions they wish they had and that we can now give. Perhaps the one thing all the Real-Woman team members have in common is leadership skill. Most of our current Real-Woman team was selected because we had significant leadership experience. We are versatile– anyone on the project team has the ability to work alone, a project follower, or a project leader. Most importantly, we take initiative.

Where should this idea be implemented?

This idea will be directed towards developing countries.

How might you prototype this idea and test some of the assumptions behind it?

Real-Women Worldwide Team plans to tackle the lack of feminine health education and affordable sanitary protection in two phases. The first phase, which will be carried out over the next 24 months, will focus on improving access to feminine health education through a comprehensive and innovative health curriculum that will be taught in schools across West Africa and other developing world. TASK Through this process, Real-Women Worldwide will simulate the experience of travel by linking classrooms around the developing world around feminine health education and empowering students to teach one another about our changing world and how we can all make the environment safer for women. We will partner with a university/college to develop a service-learning program on their campus where we will train their students over the course of a semester to become experts in the Real-Women "global mindset and Feminine health" curriculum. These students will then facilitate a weekly connection between a local middle or high school classroom in their community with a classroom abroad through the match Real-Women will make in partnership with a middle or high school in their community and in the region abroad. Real-Women will link all participating campuses in a global network, allowing student facilitators to work together across borders as advocates for their local middle/high school classrooms focusing on women issues ands how other parties can come in. This system will provide middle and high schools with a free-of-cost way to expose their students to the world while still meeting standards. The second phase which will move simultaneously with the first phase will be focused on increasing access to affordable sanitary protection through school/community based distribution of sanitary pads. TASK i) Production and distribution of first 10,000 disposable and reusable pads (Real-Women pads) The project will entail development of Real-Women pads production unit and recruitment of production staff after which the project will be introduced in schools through the school management committees. Real-Women Team will produce and distribute kits of disposable and reusable sanitary pads (DSPs), (RSPs) and other essential resources to at-risk adolescent girls in Nigeria. Each kit will come bundled in a pack, and will include: four DSPs and RSPs (i.e. two for heavy flow and two for light flow. The pads can be worn for eight hours before changing); detergent-grade soap for washing the pads (in case of reusable); a re-sealable waterproof bag for storing used pads; and a detailed instructions for proper pad use and maintenance. ii) Product improvement and quality control To ensure product improvement and quality on a continuous basis, different types of materials will be acquired for each layer of the pad based on availability and their characteristics (absorption, water repellent, top and bottom layer). Thereafter, development of cotton based laminates or blends to improve the performance for each layer of the reusable and disposable sanitary pad taking into consideration the important properties required for sanitary pads as per the recommendations provided by technical committee on Towels, Medical and Hygienic Textile Product will follow. This includes laminating fabric preparation and testing properties of the laminates; prototype development based on cotton blends; research on the best cost effective locally produced sanitizer for after use cleaning; and quality control of the product through fabric testing, physical and chemical, and microbiological laboratory analysis iii) Building the capacity of 10,000 girls on menstrual hygiene management A one day workshop for 100 female teachers drawn from 100 schools will be conducted. The female teacher trained from each of the 100 schools will be the focal point for menstrual hygiene and girls questions in general. This focal point will be responsible to answer questions on demand and manages the stock of sanitary protection material for emergencies. The teachers will also be trained on how to convey biological facts in a sensitive manner. There after a two session training will be conducted in each school using a participatory developed information booklets using cartoons (Real-Women Red Visitors Booklets). A story line will be developed in the Real-Women Red Visitors Booklet, in this story line, the girls will talk about the challenges they are facing such as their menses, the leaking menstrual materials, the myths, the dreams they have, sexual abuse, laughing of the boys, and missing of school. The first session will involve boys and the vulnerable girls identified to benefit from the pads participating while the second session will involve girls including the Real-Women ambassadors who will be health club members. On a regular basis (health club meeting every two weeks and once in a year a girls day event), the club will be expected to organize group meetings, information events for younger girls. The training which is intended for school children between the ages of 10 and 15, will provide information on menstrual hygiene management, HIV, and reproductive health and rights.

What might a day in the life of a community member interacting with your idea look like?

Every year, over 1M adolescent girls miss an average of six weeks of school due to a lack of sanitary pads and private, accessible sanitation facilities in the developing world. The effects of poverty run in a downward spiral, causing limitation to the success of women from an early age in such a way that is difficult to overcome. Despite this huddles, projects that increase school attendance, retention and achievement can play an important role in women’s empowerment, social and economic achievement. We at Real-Women believe that affordable sanitary pads should be a basic women right, and we are out to prove that reality. However, by allowing adolescent girls to stay in school, thus delaying early marriage and pregnancy, these girls could add $200 billion to the regions GDP as they become successful. Secondly by incorporating families into the educational campaign, parents will see the value in “investing in girls,” thereby improving the value of a daughter in a culture that exhibits male-child preferences. Thirdly, there will be a reduction in gynecological morbidity, which affects 35-40% of the female population. Fourthly, there will also be a reduction in the percentage of girls that drop out of school upon menarche.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Brianna Colls

Sanitary disposal is really crucial thing to do. Some would rather throw their used pad in everywhere the easiest way they can, but that should not be practiced. We really have to practice throwing used pads in a sanitary bin ans it's better if you wrap it with paper before throwing it. Remain hygienic as much as we can.

Hygiene Services 

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