UNICEF Ethiopia Partnering with Champions for Scaling up Menstrual Hygiene

Meet Freweini Mebrahtu. She is on a mission to achieve a vision that we share – that every girl and woman in Ethiopia should have access to safe, hygienic and affordable menstrual pads.

Jane Bevan
Freweini Mebrahtu MHM Champion
©UNICEF Ethiopia/2019/Nahom Tesfaye

27 May 2019

Meet Freweini Mebrahtu. She is on a mission to achieve a vision that we share – that every girl and woman in Ethiopia should have access to safe, hygienic and affordable menstrual pads. Freweini founded the Mariam Saba Sanitary Products company in Mekele, Tigray Region, which produces about 750,000 pads a year. Currently, the pads are sold through NGOs around the country at a cost of 20 Ethiopian Birr per pad (less than US$ 1). A pad can last between six months to a year.

Recently, Freweini’s work received global recognition when she was nominated for the CNN ‘Hero’ awards.

Menstrual hygiene is a challenge in Ethiopia because pads are difficult to find in areas beyond the country’s main cities, forcing most women and girls to make do with rags and other absorbents. UNICEF’s research has found that discussing menstrual hygiene is a taboo, and 70 per cent of girls find out about menstruation the first time they experience it. Menstruation is considered shameful and because they fear being discovered and teased, often by boys, many girls skip school during menstruation. Continued absenteeism leads to poor performance, gradually to dropping out of school and often to early marriage.

UNICEF’s menstrual health and hygiene programme is supporting girls in school to manage menstruation with dignity and advocating to break the silence. Men and boys must be reached as they play a key role in supporting their daughters, sisters and classmates and challenging the shame and stigma.

UNICEF’s school MHH programme includes the rehabilitation of toilet facilities to provide for adequate privacy, space and water for girls, developing informational materials such as puberty books in local languages, and creating a ‘safe space,’ a room where girls with period pains can rest, wash and find materials to manage their menstruation. In the schools where the programme works, absenteeism of girls has reduced significantly and anecdotal evidence from teachers suggest the girls’ performance is improving.

UNICEF is also working with partners to expand the supply chain for menstrual pads such as those produced by Mariam Saba to make them as widely accessible as possible. Where there are national producers, UNICEF will support them to increase their sales reach, and where there is no accessibility, supporting the establishment of regional manufacturing and sales outlets.

In 2018, the Ethiopian Standards Agency, with support from the Ministry of Health, UNICEF and others, developed national standards for both reusable and disposable pads through a series of consultative workshops. These non-mandatory standards will help producers to register their products and to develop a healthy market in the country.

Research shows that while urban women and girls prefer disposable pads, the majority of rural women prefer the reusable option, primarily because of affordability.  UNICEF is working towards giving girls and women access to products of their choice.

On this Menstrual Hygiene Day, designated on 28th May, the fifth month of the year, the 28-day-cycle and the 5 days a woman bleeds every month, it is an appropriate occasion to celebrate champions like Freweini, and to reflect on the challenges faced by thousands of girls as they struggle to manage this normal bodily function. UNICEF, with partners such as Mariam Saba, is working hard to ensure this challenge becomes a thing of the past.