State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Reusable, Homemade Feminine Pads: A Simple Intervention to Help Keep Girls in School

In many areas of sub-Saharan Africa, gender parity tends to decline at higher levels of schooling. While girls’ enrollment and completion rates for primary school are typically high, these rates decrease with secondary and tertiary education. Girls may discontinue their studies to devote more time to household chores, to earn extra income by engaging in commercial activities or to ease the financial burden on their family, who may not be able to afford tuition fees. Another consideration is menstruation: girls miss 3-5 days of school during their periods – 50 plus school days per year – often because they lack access to private latrines and/or to feminine hygienic products. These absences cause them to fall further and further behind their male peers academically, eventually leading many to drop out.

A simple, cost-effective intervention has been shown to decrease girls’ absenteeism rates. Research conducted in Ghana by Oxford University’s Säid Business School found that giving girls feminine pads reduced absenteeism from 21 percent to nine percent of school days. In international development circles, it is increasingly common knowledge that access to feminine pads can make a difference in keeping girls in school.

A group of committed nursing students from Columbia University’s School of Nursing and their instructor resolved to find a culturally acceptable, sustainable, low-cost solution. Their final design was nine square inches of double-layered, colored cotton material, which after washing, can be hung to dry in the sun.

Columbia specialists develop reusable, environmentally-friendly feminine pads.

In the space of one week’s time, the Columbia instructor, in collaboration with a Millennium Cities Initiative specialist in Mekelle, Ethiopia, showed 206 girls in six Mekelle schools how to make and care for these pads, which are made from locally available soft cotton. The pads have been well-received by the girls, giving them a greater sense of independence. “This will save my family money,” said one girl after learning how to make the pads. Another said, “I will not feel afraid to go out during menstruation.”

A girl sews pieces of locally available cotton.

The Columbia University’s Center for New Media Technology and Learning team is developing a video on the impact these homemade, reusable and environmentally-friendly feminine pads can have on the girls’ education in Mekelle.

The concept was demonstrated to 75 Health Extension Workers in Wukro, a nearby town close to the Millennium Villages Project sites, at the request of the Ethiopian Ministry of Health. Moms for Moms, a local organization that helps mothers and children in Mekelle where other MCI volunteers have worked, is strongly considering going into production of the model pad as an income-generating project. And MAA Garment Factory, an Ethiopian-based clothing manufacturer, has agreed to donate cotton to further the initiative.

Materials used to make feminine pads.

Students, school administrators, women’s groups and community leaders alike have embraced the project. After watching one of the demonstrations, one school administrator commented, “We have been educated with the most valuable information just now. We must teach others and spread it throughout Tigray (the region surrounding Mekelle). We do not need anything from the outside. We have our own material here, and we will protect the environment from plastics.”

Mekelle girls learn how to make feminine pads.

Lessons in how to make the pads have recently been incorporated into local schools’ science, economics and health classes. In time, those leading this initiative, both from Columbia and now from Mekelle itself, anticipate that this important and practical intervention will have an even greater impact – keeping girls in school, thereby creating a broadened range of economic and social opportunities for them, ultimately benefiting entire communities.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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12 years ago

[…] a 2010 blog on Mary’s work and the founding of Girls2Women, MCI described how Mary found that disposable sanitary pads were prohibitively expensive for many […]

11 years ago

I just recently heard about this project and would like to know it there is a pattern available to use to make these sanitary pads. I would be willing to make some and send to the program. Would someone please respond?

Thank you.

St Paul's Council of Catholic Women
St Paul’s Council of Catholic Women
6 years ago

Where can a money donation be mailed, to whom and in what type ( money order, check, or what) Our council is interested in helping the girls in making their own napkins.

Lois. Meyer
Lois. Meyer
6 years ago

Where can I find a pattern to help with this project?