Keeping girls in school by helping them manage their periods

Menstruation for women and girls does not stop for an emergency, so UNICEF is investing in women and girls by training them on how they can make their own sanitary supplies.

By Simon Crittle
21 February 2018

JUBA, South Sudan, 21 February 2018 – It’s the moment a South Sudanese girl dreads: having her menstrual period when she’s at school. Menstruating for girls in the world’s youngest nation is considered so shameful, many drop out and fail to complete their educations.

So says David Clement, the owner of a small, local business, EnviroCare, which is being supported by UNICEF and is dedicated to reducing barriers and “breaking the silence” that prevents girls from attending school.

“We are targeting girls who are having difficulties at school, especially as a result of menstrual hygiene management,” Clement said.

The problem is that disposable sanitary pads are too expensive and often unavailable for most families in the poverty-stricken country. As an alternative, women sometimes use animal skins, leaves, rags and even stones to conceal their bleeding.

UNICEF South Sudan
SmilePads are made from absorbent cotton and includes a plastic layer. A single pad can be washed over and over and used for several months.

“The sanitary materials girls use here are often unhealthy and can cause problems with their reproductive health.”

- Clement

How to find a solution? The answer for Clement was simple: design a reusable pad that was cheap to produce and easy to distribute. And so, the SmilePad was created.

The blue and white pad – which takes its name from putting a smile on the faces of girls – is made from absorbent cotton and includes a plastic layer. A single pad can be washed over and over and used for several months.

South Sudan’s civil war, which erupted in 2013, has deprived millions of children of their education in a country that had poor education indicators to begin with. Some 2 million school-age children are estimated to be out of school.

Clement said he came up with the idea for the pads after returning from many years abroad in Uganda and Italy. He was shocked that his sisters and cousins weren’t completing school just because they got their period.

After conducting a baseline survey in 2013 in schools in the South Sudan state of East Equatoria, he concluded the needs of menstruating girls were immense, so he decided to form the business.

UNICEF South Sudan

At first, he began with a few sewing machines and three women from a local village.

He took the idea to UNICEF and local non-government organizations, which were impressed and wanted him to produce more.

As a test, UNICEF funded the production of 4,500 pads to be distributed to girls in East Equatoria. The pads proved so popular that the business began producing them in South Sudan around the clock.

But after the civil war began, it proved cheaper and more efficient to make them in Uganda and import them. While some pads are still made in South Sudan, the bulk of the business is based in Uganda, where EnviroCare employs 17 people and produces about 1,500 pads.

The pads are distributed in packs of three and include two pairs of underwear and a plastic pouch for storage. They are purchased by local NGOs, often with funding from UNICEF, and distributed in schools, displacement camps for conflict-affected persons and women’s prisons.

EnviroCare is now expanding the use of SmilePads by running training programs for local women in remote locations across South Sudan.

“In an emergency we think of food and water but we tend to forget the specific needs of women and girls,” said Jennifer Melton, a child protection specialist with UNICEF South Sudan.

“Menstruation does not stop in an emergency. Equipping women and girls with the skills to make their own sanitary pads not only helps them maintain hygiene and self-care but helps preserve their dignity.”

Funding for this project was generously provided by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).