While doing volunteer work at a Nairobi, Kenya, primary school in 2006, Dutchwoman Chantal Heutink noticed that there were far fewer girls in the highest grade than in the younger classrooms. The teacher explained menstruation kept many girls at home, since most lacked access to anything more than rags or leaves to use in place of sanitary pads. That moment led to the eventual creation of I-Care, a Kenya-based producer of affordable biodegradable sanitary pads.
Girls in Kenya—and many other impoverished areas—can miss up to 60 days of school per year due to lack of access to sanitary pads. In Kenya, a roughly one-year supply of disposable pads can cost about $12—about half the monthly average income in the country’s rural areas. I-Care’s cotton pads, which took two years to develop, are hand washable and reuseable, bringing the annual outlay per girl down by about half. That difference can be enough to keep girls in school. In fact, schools where I-Care pads are being sold report that girls’ attendance is up by 30 percent.
A typical day starts with a 6:00 a.m. wake up and a two-hour walk to school (if the girl is in school at all).
I-Care is a wholly owned subsidiary of Afri-Can, a nonprofit Heutink founded in 2006 to create new income opportunities in Eastern Africa. Her work in the region has been focused primarily on helping lift girls out of poverty. According to Heutink, the typical day for a girl in that region starts with a 6:00 a.m. wake up and a two-hour walk to school (if she’s in school at all). After the two-hour return walk, she’ll get home around 6:00 p.m. and spend the next three hours cooking and cleaning. Homework can be an afterthought—and that’s if there’s light to do it by. So the added burden of missing several days of school per month—and what Heutink describes as a cultural taboo around discussing menstruation—means too many girls get left behind.
Since launching I-Care in 2012, Heutink has partnered with schools and teachers to help sell the pads and has also created educational campaigns for web and radio. Current projects have her operating at a loss through 2019, so for now she is relying on about $500,000 in grants and donations to make up the difference, including $200,000 from USAID’s Health Enterprise Fund.
In addition to looking for ways to bring the price of the pads down even further, Heutink’s future plans involve creating a program that would help girls who struggle with even those prices to raise money for their purchases.
“This is a means for girls to be confident,” Heutink says, “so they can make decisions, say ‘no,’ and learn.”