05/08/2013 12:08 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

Sanitary Pads: An Easy Way to Increase Girls' Access to Education

By Megan White Mukuria

An easy win for girls?

Changing the world is a tough job. There are so many issues fighting for attention, we all sometimes feel the urge to shut down rather than to engage.

Educating girls seems like a compelling world-changer to focus on: reducing HIV, increasing household income, reducing gender-based violence, increasing family planning, etc. That's why Raise for Women exists.

But how do we even educate girls? School fees are endlessly in demand, they need uniforms, textbooks, pencils, girls risk rape walking to school, they get married off or forced to stay home and do chores. Families are failing girls; governments are failing girls. Why should we do what they should be doing?

And even if we do our bit, how do we know it was effective? That a girl was actually educated? That she graduated? Without knowing those answers, its just exhausting.

These are questions that have kept me up at night for 12 years living in Kenya and working with girls. They resulted in one overarching question:

How can I as one small person invest strategically to help the most girls graduate -- and in a sustainable way?

The simplest of solutions: pads

And those questions resulted in a simple but profound answer.

Here's what I found: if girls don't have sanitary pads, they stay home. The rags they use don't inspire confidence. They are terrified of having an "accident" at school, so they stay home.

And they use rags rather than pads because a pack of pads cost 25 percent or more of a family's daily expenses. Pads compete with food, or medicine. Across East Africa 4 in 5 women cannot access affordable pads.

What would you do if you didn't have pads (or tampons)?

Or, what would you choose not to do for fear of embarrassment?

A lack of pads causes a girl to miss school six weeks per year.

She feels embarrassed, she falls behind in school, and her dreams slip away as she gets sucked back into repeating the cycle of poverty.

This is the situation facing 2.6 million girls just in Kenya, and with over 40 percent under 15 years old, providing sanitary pads is a critical development issue across the majority world.

Early on, when I was researching the topic, I asked girls how they would feel if they knew they would have a year's supply of pads. One answer I got blew me away:

If I had a year's supply of pads, I would feel like the whole world loved me.

- Seventh Grader, Palm Olive Academy
Kibera, Nairobi

This is why I began ZanaAfrica. As a labor of love, and a smart solution to create an easy win to keep girls in school.

A silver bullet?

Pads win back 75 percent of lost learning days.

With pads and related health education, girls' absenteeism drops from 4.9 days on average to 1.2 days per month when provided with pads. Girls still have to do the hard work of juggling household chores and overcoming illness. But their enhanced attendance gives them a strong chance of competing in school, which helps their parents justify continued investment in their education. When a girl is able to stay in school and do her job, her family does their job. So it's not a silver bullet -- but its pretty close.

Pads shouldn't be a luxury good. Not when girls are required to stay in school no matter what their body is doing.

We at ZanaAfrica believe that affordable sanitary pads should be a basic human right, and we've set out to make the lowest-cost pad in the world to make that a reality.

We have worked to help the Kenyan government do their job too. They've written pads into budgets, just like pencils, to get the government to play their part -- two years in a row, for nearly 400,000 girls. Since 2010 we've personally served 10,000 girls, and this year we'll serve another 7,600.

Now, through Raise for Women, we're making sure every girl in Kenya who needs pads is documented on a school map we've created and served -- by the government or NGOs, by you or me. Our app will follow girls and evaluate their attendance and performance to see measurable change. Together we can each play a small but vital role, to sustainably transform society by unleashing girls' potential.