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In 2004, former IDRC research awardee Shelley Jones left for Uganda. Her doctoral work sought to identify the obstacles preventing girls from obtaining a high school diploma. The Canadian researcher expected family finances and labour needs, as well as forced early marriage, to be impediments to the education of teenage girls. These factors are indeed present in this landlocked East African country that is ranked 163rd on the human development index.

To her surprise, she discovered that a major obstacle was actually something as simple as it is natural: menstruation. “I was very shocked to realize that the 15 girls, aged 15 to 19, who participated in my study missed school during their periods. This represents between 20% and 25% of school days,” said Shelly Jones, now a professor at Royal Roads University in British Columbia.

The researcher learned that young Ugandan women do not have access to feminine hygiene products, which are expensive and only available in the city. As a result, many women make do with what they have available: strips of clothing, pieces of foam, leaves, or toilet paper — options associated with risks of infection.

Furthermore, these unhygienic measures often result in leaks and many schools do not even have washrooms with running water to clean up the mess. Rather than finding themselves in embarrassing situations, many girls simply decide to miss school during their period. “Access to education is a human right. Lack of access to feminine hygiene products causes inequality between girls and boys,” said Ms. Jones, whose work was supported by the International Development Research Centre.

Pad production

When she returned to Canada, Shelley Jones thought about sending sanitary pads to Uganda. However, this solution was neither sustainable nor financially viable. She discussed the problem with another student, Carrie-Jane Williams.

She contacted Lunapads, a Vancouver-based company that makes reusable cloth sanitary pads. They offered her sample pads and patterns to reproduce them. “Carrie-Jane Williams left for Uganda and distributed these pads,” said Shelley Jones. "The girls found them comfortable and easy to use." 

Next, a local company had to be set up to produce similar sanitary pads. Carrie-Jane Williams passed the baton to Paul and Sophia Grinvalds, social entrepreneurs trained at McGill University. After a successful pilot project, they officially founded AFRIpads in 2010 and still run the company. AFRIpads is a company supported by international shareholders, including Lunapads.

The production workshop is located in Masaka, a rural region in the southwest of the country. The company quickly showed its value: to date more than 750,000 reusable sanitary pad kits have been sold in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa through sales offices in Kenya and Malawi.

Good jobs

In addition to improving access to education for girls, the creation of AFRIpads has provided employment for about 200 people, mainly women, whose socioeconomic life has been transformed.

“Of the 15 participants in the 2004 study, three still work at AFRIpads and now hold executive positions,” said Daniel Ahimbisibwe, Shelley Jones' former field research assistant, who closely followed the company's growth.

This was the case for Safina [fictional name], who started working as a seamstress, moved into quality control, and eventually became a supervisor. “AFRIpads offers leadership courses where I learn a lot, which helps in all aspects of my life,” says the 27-year-old woman. “I even managed to save and buy a piece of land last year.” She has come a long way from the days when she would not leave the house during her period.

Shelley Jones is returning to Uganda this year to conduct the fourth part of her study, a follow-up on the lives of the teenage girls she met 13 years ago: their lives as young women, mothers and community members, as well as their relationships with men and their level of independence. “It is truly inspiring and gratifying to see that our work has had so many positive impacts on the lives of so many women.”  

The original French version of this article was published in the February 2016 issue of Québec Science.

Top image: Dominic Chavez / World Bank