After realizing that girls often skipped school every month because they couldn’t afford sanitary pads, Bethsheba Otuga is on a mission to make cheaper options available to girls from disadvantaged communities in Kenya.
Bethsheba, a retired teacher, is the founder of Ahadi reusable pads, which helps give young girls hope and empowers them with life skills, entrepreneurship and leadership.
“Ahadi means promise in Swahili. Many girls drop out of school for lack of pads. So when they can use a pad like ours, which is reusable, they have a promise not to drop out of school and future opportunities,” Bethsheba explains.
Bethsheba learnt to make washable pads using fabric through her organization’s partners, Somo Africa, where she trained for twelve weeks.
The pads are made from cotton, flannel, fleece fabrics, and towels, which are very absorbent and comfortable.
“To settle on this fabric was not easy. First, I had to do a lot of leg work. Luckily, I met Somo Africa, who trained me and sponsored me for my first production. After that, I have never looked back,” she explains passionately.
Reusable pads provide an affordable alternative for girls from low-income families compared to a pack of disposable sanitary pads, which cost about 1 US dollar.
Narrating her ordeal, Bethsheba says, “In my days, I almost dropped out of school because I was ashamed of asking for pads that were not freely available. One day, when I was in the learning room, I found myself sitting in a pool of blood. I was so embarrassed, and since I could not stay with that shame at school, I had to go home. I missed some classes, and it started affecting my grades. But since I had a dream to become a teacher, I ignored the shame and decided to stay in school. Unfortunately, many girls are not as fortunate as I was. So because I know that experience, I was motivated to help these young girls out.”
One in 10 African girls misses school during their periods, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF estimates, which means they fall behind in their studies and often drop out of school.
Talking about menstruation is still considered taboo in many parts of the world, where it is seen as shameful or embarrassing.
Bethsheba and her team want to encourage people to talk openly about menstruation to girls on the continent. So once a month, Bethsheba and her colleagues go out to local communities to teach girls and women how to make and use reusable sanitary pads.
The talks also cover menstrual hygiene.
So far, Ahadi has worked with 1200 girls from vulnerable communities across Kenya.
If well taken care of, Bethsheba says the washable pads can be reused for twelve months, but this too can be a challenge if access to water and soap is limited.
Bethsheba gets funding from well-wishers, but she says the number of people relying on her for pads is far greater than what the resources can cover.
“I get calls from so many people asking for the pads. However, the challenges are huge. I meet many people in need, but the means are not there. We do not have the money to buy the fabrics, so it is not easy. The need is huge, but the commodity is unaffordable to the needy,” she said.
Bethsheba hopes to raise funds to purchase the fabric and distribute Ahadi pads to needy girls who cannot afford sanitary towels in the country.
She is also lucky to be a finalist of the GreenBiz programme. This five-year project, implemented by Kenya Climate Innovation Centre, KCIC, seeks to increase the commercialization and scale-up of climate-related companies, creating increased community and household resilience to climate change and other environmental and social benefits. Under the programme, her company will receive intensive practical training and business coaching to prove the concept in the market and progress towards commercialization.
“I hope KCIC will help me in patenting and KEBs certification of my product as this will help me penetrate the market and even big supermarkets,” she said.
Campaigners say it is essential to make pads more widely available as girls are often forced to stay at home during their periods, affecting their development and self-esteem. Ahadi is one step closer to making this dream true.