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Women's Healthcare in Africa - An Urgent Monthly Need

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Guest Blog Post by: Ashley Rogers

[Kampala, Uganda] A few months ago, a certain girl in Lugazi, Uganda (let's call her Sara) told me, "I curse the day I was born a girl." Why? Sara was born the eldest of 5 children, her father died last year, and her mother is HIV positive. There is no money for clothes or shoes or school supplies. Also, there is no money for sanitary pads.

As almost any woman can attest, feminine hygiene products are something you take for granted, that is, until the moment you need them and don't have them. In East Africa, women and girls who can't afford expensive disposable pads, use old rags, newspaper, or mud to manage menstruation. For a young girl in East Africa this lack of access is not only uncomfortable, undignified, and unhygienic - it also keeps you from school several days a month. This is one of the main reasons girls in Uganda drop out of secondary school at a much higher rate than boys. Studies estimate that female secondary students miss as much as 20% of school days due to poor menstrual management read more here.

Amidst these problems, Sara is pressured by men who say they will give her money and other goods in exchange for sex. Sara is not alone in her regret of being born a girl. The truth is economic, social, and health conditions are worse for poor girls in East Africa, and just about everywhere else. In spite of all of this, women are amazing beings. We are diverse and beautiful and powerful. Girls like Sara have so much potential, so much to offer their communities and the world. Women and girls should be proud.

As the Kampala-based Director of Operations for Segal Family Foundation, I have the pleasure of witnessing an unexpected movement for women's empowerment that revolves around menstrual management. The Segal Family Foundation is a private foundation founded by Barry Segal in 2004, supporting 130 organizations across 18 African countries. Amongst these partners are three social businesses innovating feminine hygiene products that bring girls dignity, hygienic solutions, and more days in school.

Ruby Cup has produced a low-cost silicone menstrual cup that replaces the need for sanitary pads. They distribute through woman to woman sales in the slum areas of Nairobi, Kenya. Their sales model not only efficiently distributes their product, but also promotes peer-to-peer menstrual education and provides an income source for young women.

Afripads used a customer-focused design process to develop a low-cost, reusable sanitary pad. They produce all their pads in Uganda, bringing manufacturing and more than 50 stable jobs to the country.

Sustainable Health Enterprises, SHE, has developed a sanitary pad from banana fibers. They plan to build a factory in Rwanda to produce the pads and source the banana fibers from 600 small-holder farmers.

Together these innovative organizations are creating jobs while building more options for girls to take control of their reproductive health and engage more fully in formal education.

These products are just one step. They have to be met with empowerment-based initiatives that offer opportunities for girls to access education, connect with powerful female role-models, learn about their rights, get information about and access to reproductive healthcare, lead social movements, start businesses and express all the reasons they have to be proud. Segal Family Foundation's community of youth-focused NGOs including AfricAid, AkiliDada, Set Her Free and AGE Africa are developing models to do just that.

One participant of Akili Dada's holistic sponsorship program, let's call her Edith, lead her village to build a bridge. That bridge now allows sick people and pregnant mothers to access the health center more quickly. Young women, like Edith, have the answers to their community challenges, but simply need someone to invest in them. This investment is the difference between Sara and Edith, between shame and dignity, between poverty and power. I am proud of the work SFF's partners are doing to invest in girls and show them that it is a blessing, not a curse, to have been born a girl.

Ashley Rogers is Segal Family Foundation's Director of Operations and based in Kampala, Uganda. She directs SFF's funding and non-monetary support of partners in Africa.