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Empowering girls and women in Kenya through women's health initiative

Education of girls and empowerment of women can transform communities, countries, and the world. Thanks to a grant by the IPC Foundation, a team of researchers and students at the UAB Institute for Human Rights set out to do just that: find ways to keep girls in school while enabling local women to establish microbusinesses to support their families.

Many girls around the world are unable to complete their education because of discrimination, cultural expectations, early marriage, or poverty. The time young women leave school often coincides with the onset of their menstrual cycle and the lack of access to sanitary supplies and feminine hygiene products, which makes them unable to attend classes during that time. This is true for the many girls in the Maasai Mara, a rural area of southern Kenya that borders the Serengeti planes. The Maasai are an ancient community of strong and brave warriors, but poverty and lack of development have negatively affected their quality of life. Most Maasai exist on less than $1 a day, do not have access to running water and electricity, and live in houses built of sticks and dirt. Girls are married very young, many as young as 8 years old, and are often given away in return for a cow, goat, or an extra blanket. Many girls are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) and other outdated cultural oppressive practices.

Education provides the access to better jobs and prosperity, especially for the most vulnerable parts of the population such as women and girls. To this day, a majority of the community is illiterate. One of the problems facing families is high school fees and supplies. Most children attend boarding schools, which cost $200 per year for primary education plus $50 per child for a mandatory school uniform. Parents have been reluctant to pay these fees for girls. Empowering women to have an income of their own and keeping girls in school is therefore crucial for this community. Studies have shown that mothers who have an education and financial resources are more likely to protect their daughters.

In March 2019, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of the UAB Institute for Human Rights, and Dr. Stacy Moak, Professor of Social Work, travelled to the Maasai Mara with twelve UAB students. In their luggage were over 1,000 pieces of underwear and about 500 reusable pads sewn by students, faculty, friends, and family in the U.S. Over the course of a week, they handed out pads and underwear, taught local girls about their bodily functions and feminine health management, and trained local women how to sew reusable pads.

There is a stigma attached to addressing women’s health issues that includes conversations about menstruation. In Maasai Mara, as in many places around the world, it is considered inappropriate to speak of women’s health and bodily functions, and for women to be in a public setting during her cycle. Thus, most girls do not understand how to plan and prepare for their period because they do not have access to sanitary pads, underwear, or other supplies needed for their transition to womanhood. As a result, many girls are forced to stay home and in their rooms, missing classes once a month for a week. When added together, girls miss three months of school each year, leading to knowledge loss and a gap between females and their male peers. Many girls become disheartened and drop out of school, and some are encouraged to leave by their families. Other girls resort to selling their bodies to be able to purchase disposable pads in an attempt to manage menstruation. Schools provide a safe space for girls to learn about adolescent development and sexual health and to get information about taking care of themselves. The UAB team instructed adolescent girls at the Sekenani Girls High School on the female body and menstrual health management, answered many questions, and provided the girls with reusable sanitary pads and underwear.

The second part of the project, namely training local women on how to sew the reusable pads, was implemented a couple of days later. Local women attended a UAB-led workshop to learn how to use a sewing machine and make the reusable pads. Thanks to the grant by the IPC Foundation, the UAB team was able to equip women with a sewing machine and enough materials to produce the pads. The women will be able to sell the pads to those who can pay and provide them for free or subsidized cost to adolescent girls in local schools.

Local partners will continue to monitor the implementation of the project. Nelson Reiya and his wife, Maggie Koshal, initiators of the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy and the I See Maasai Development Initiative will send reports on attendance, self-confidence, educational achievements, and retention rates in Sekenani Girls High School as well as the establishment and successes of the micro-businesses run by local women.

The funds provided by IPC Foundation allowed the UAB team to purchase a sewing machine, thread, absorbent and waterproof fabric, Velcro, and underwear. From the UAB team and the Maasai Community, thank you for your support and for making a difference in these girls’ and women’s lives.

Hear from the program directors at an IPC Foundation Lunch & Learn on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 at 11:30 am at Independent Presbyterian Church, 3100 Highland Avenue South, Birmingham, AL. Cost: $10 Please RSVP to Marsha Harbin at mharbin@ipc-usa.org or (205) 933-3715.