One of the main reasons why women and girls throughout the world have lower access to education is a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products. For girls whose families are struggling to get by economically, menstrual hygiene often has to take a backseat to other basic necessities like light, food, and housing. This means girls to have to make a choice between two harmful alternatives: using unsafe, unsanitary methods to manage their menstrual health or staying home from school.
WISER makes a number of critical interventions in this unjust system. First and foremost, WISER provides free menstrual hygiene products, as well as comprehensive healthcare services. WISER also has an expansive sexual and reproductive health (SRH) curriculum, and inherent in that program is a non-stigmatized discussion of menstrual health. At WISER, girls have both the tools to manage their monthly cycles and an environment that normalizes conversations about them.
But it is not enough to give girls the least expensive or most convenient menstrual hygiene product. Nor is it enough to teach girls that they have a right to bodily autonomy without enacting that belief in practice. That’s why WISER offers girls choices in how they manage their menstrual health.
WISER has always provided students and staff with pads, which are the most commonly used menstrual hygiene product in the region. Originally (over ten years ago), WISER provided disposable pads. Since disposable products not only contribute to unsustainable levels of plastic waste around the world, but also are difficult to manage with discretion in a community where waste management is difficult, WISER made the switch to reusable, washable pads in recent years.
Washable pads are safe, economical, and sustainable. WISER provides girls with clean water, plenty of soap, and a space to hygienically dry clean pads—everything they need to use the pads safely and effectively while preventing the risk of infection. Though, one student noted the main drawback to reusable pads, “As you use the washable pads, they wear out.” They lose effectiveness after many washings.
Now, thanks to a recent partnership with Saalt, WISER students and faculty also have access to menstrual cups. Like reusable pads, cups are environmentally and economically sustainable, but are not as common in Muhuru Bay.
Like many places in the world, there is stigma about using products like menstrual cups and tampons that involve insertion into the body. Menstrual cups also require a familiarity and comfort with one’s own anatomy. A student mentioned that, “at first, it was challenging.” But with the help of WISER’s SRH curriculum to normalize conversations about women’s bodies, many students felt confident practicing using the cups after getting advice from friends. One student explained how menstrual health is talked about on campus, “we’re just open. Here at WISER everyone has a cup. You don’t have to be shy about using it.”
Initial reactions from students and staff to menstrual cups are overwhelmingly positive. A WISER teacher appreciated the effect on her classroom: “the girls don’t need to take a long time [in the bathroom] during class. They simply run to the toilet and come right back.” Many students like the cup better than the pads they’ve used for most of their lives; one student was so excited about the cup that she asked for one for her mother.
Students are now able to choose, many for the first time, what product works best for them—both in general and on a daily basis. For example, many students find it easiest to use pads at school and the cup at home: “When I was at home, it saved money; I’m not having to ask for my parents to provide me with money for the disposable kinds.” One noted that she uses the cup when she plays sports: “When I am in sports [using the cup], I can jump as high as I can.”
A WISER teacher remarked that she is not surprised that “the ideas [for the cup and the reusable pad] came from women. Women think and reason very fast.” Saalt, a company founded by two women, would be delighted to know that their product has been well received at WISER. Saalt knows what WISER girls know: “that investing in women is the fastest and most effective way of changing a community. When you help a woman, you create change for generations.”
We couldn’t agree more. These students have stories to write, experiments to run, volleyballs to spike, friends and families to love, and communities to impact. In order to bring their full selves to school each day, they must not only have their basic needs met, but also have autonomy in the choices they make for each of their bodies.