No girl’s period should force her to miss school, and this startup is making sure of that
Growing up as a young girl in Nigeria, Folasade Bamisaye didn’t have access to sanitary pads or tampons. She would cut off parts of her foam mattress, or use scraps of clothing—sometimes even parts of her school uniform.
Bamisaye’s lack of access to basic menstrual hygiene products didn’t just cut away at her school uniform, it also cut into her school time and prevented her from attending lessons. “I missed a lot of classes, a lot of lectures, and it interfered with my academic performance,” she says.
Twenty years after Bamisaye finished school, Nigerian schoolgirls continue to face the same challenges when they menstruate. So, she decided to do something about it—by creating a startup that provides girls with menstrual hygiene kits in the hope that they’ll stay in school.
Bamisaye’s work with her startup MYperiodKIT has not gone unnoticed—she was recently selected as a finalist to represent Nigeria in a $1 million global startup competition, the Chivas Venture. On May 24. she’ll join 26 social entrepreneurs to pitch at the final at a conference in Amsterdam.
Sadly, Bamisaye’s story about her school days is not an uncommon one. By UNESCO’s estimates, one in ten adolescent girls in Africa miss school when they’re menstruating, and “eventually drop out.” A 2016 study of menstrual hygiene management in schools in countries sub-Saharan Africa found that a “gender discriminatory nature of many school environments” prevents students and teachers from managing their periods with “safety, dignity, and privacy.”
In Nigeria, around 68 percent of schools have no decent toilets, a WaterAid spokesperson told Mashable. “This means many have to find somewhere dark to get privacy, which is both undignified and dangerous, and is particularly difficult during menstruation,” the spokesperson said. “If a school has no decent toilets, students often stay at home during their period or drop out of school altogether once they reach adolescence.”
Schools in some areas often have no clean source of water, soap, or a safe, private girls’ toilet with changing or washing facilities. Per the research, this doesn’t just impact negatively on girls’ academic success (which later impacts girls’ “economic potential” during their lifetime), it impacts girls’ sexual and reproductive health, their self-esteem and sense of agency.
Nigerian schoolgirls who cannot afford to buy sanitary towels are forced to use makeshift sanitary pads out of household materials, like fabric scraps and leaves, which can carry the risk of reproductive tract infections. According to 2015 WaterAid research, 61 percent of Nigerian girls interviewed use repurposed cloth to manage their first few periods, and 45 percent stay away from school for a few days when they’re on their period.
“I met people going through the same situation as me over 20 years ago. I thought: ‘I need to do something.'”
Bamisaye says that through speaking to schoolgirls and people in her community, she realised that her experience of menstruation during her school years was not unique. “Visiting schools as part of my job brought me back into the community and I started interacting with young adolescents, I met people going through the same situation as me over 20 years ago,” she said. “I thought: ‘I need to do something.'”
That’s why she set up MYperiodKIT, a social enterprise providing girls in rural and semi urban areas with the menstrual hygiene products they need for their periods at an affordable cost. Bamisaye’s goal is this: give girls what they need for their periods so they can stay in school. The MYperiodKIT includes sanitary pads, tissue wipes, pantyliners, and disposable bags. All profits made from the kits are reinvested so girls who cannot afford them can also receive kits. The idea, Bamisaye says, is that “no matter your economic situation” you have the fundamental materials necessary for menstrual hygiene.
Currently, this lack of access to products has far-reaching repercussions for young girls in Nigeria. “When a girl lacks access to this it has a long ripple effect,” says Bamisaye. “In Nigeria, particularly in rural and semi-urban areas, a lot of girls have to miss school during their period. As a result of so much absenteeism, they cannot complete their education,” she says.
Bamisaye says that girls also engage in transactional sex “in order to raise money to buy sanitary pads in the markets.” “When you have girls engaging in transactional sex, it can lead to issues such as HIV and AIDS,” she says.
The kits have been adapted since launching to meet the needs of young girls, many of whom are growing up in areas with limited access to water and soap. The kits initially contained reusable sanitary pads, but Bamisaye says this “created an additional problem rather than solving the existing problem.” She says that that a lack of access to sanitation meant the girls weren’t able to wash the pads before reusing them, and therefore creating a risk of infection.
Out of this problem came an idea for a sustainable, disposable sanitary pad made from farmers’ waste products. The MYperiodKIT team developed “GreenPads,” an affordable sanitary pad made from wasted banana and plantain stem fibre. According to Bamisaye, the pads are 50 percent cheaper than existing pads in the Nigerian market, and they are biodegradable. Bamisaye’s hope is to sell GreenPads widely throughout Nigeria, and to reinvest the profit so they can give away more kits to disadvantaged girls and women.
Despite the recognition that the global startup competition brings, Bamisaye says this work is profoundly important to her on a personal level. “The startup means to me that we will have girls who will no longer have to drop out of school just because they cannot afford a necessity as basic as menstrual hygiene,” she says.