“I remember the first day of the Sauti ya Dada club, many of the girls cried when we gave them new undergarments and sanitary pads. It had a huge impact," shares Sauti ya Dada club mentor, Pauline Ambrose, from Siaya, Kenya.
In Siaya, many parents earn less than $1 a day. Sanitary pads are the second largest monthly cost, after bread, to an average Kenyan family; approximately two-thirds of women and girls in Kenya cannot afford them.
Pauline goes on to share that sometimes girls only have one undergarment that they wash and dry at night to use the next morning. The girls will often use the same menstrual pad from one day to the next as they cannot afford new ones. As a result, there is a lot of infection during menstruation because of unhygienic conditions. Even washable cloth sanitary pads are not a good solution as water is a challenge in their region, with people needing to walk 5 kilometers to fetch water.
Aside from the negative health and psychological impacts from the lack of proper menstrual care, there is a larger concern for girls in this region: being pushed into sexual exploitation and transactional sex situations.
In Kenya, where women are more likely to live in poor households than men, it is estimated that about 20 percent of sexual relationships are formed for the purpose of financial assistance. Due to the taboo around menstruation, the lack of menstrual pads, and a culture of the sexual exploitation of women, many teen girls resort to trading sexual favors with men to receive menstrual pads or undergarments. A recent study in Kenya shows that 1 in 10 girls have engaged in transactional sex to obtain pads.
HIV is another reality that has torn a hole in the social fabric of Siaya as in many other communities in East Africa. Pauline shares that up to 24% of teens between the ages of 13-24 years old in Siaya are infected with HIV. This epidemic has left many children orphans or missing one of their parents, further exacerbating poverty. She goes on to say that this has also created a culture of indifference to the sexual exploitation of girls and women.
She has found that in many circumstances, girls in the community receive pressure from their own family members to “contribute” to the food of the family by any means necessary. Often the implication is to use their bodies, their only recourse, to do that.
Because of these harsh realities for girls in this region, the Sauti ya Dada club is a life-saving experience for girls. Sauti ya Dada is a two-year program that creates and strengthens systems of support, learning, leadership, and advocacy both in and out of school to help over 210 marginalized girls in East Africa complete their secondary school education. The girls meet weekly with their mentors and regularly as a group to share experiences, support each other, develop important self-esteem, leadership, and advocacy skills, and learn about sexual and reproductive health and rights. They receive regular text messages providing them with information and encouragement. They also participate in creative advocacy projects that allow them to step into leadership roles as they push for change around social issues in their communities. The girls in Sauti ya Dada also receive the life-changing Dignity Kits each month that include underwear, body lotion, and sanitary pads.
“This improves their self-esteem. When they leave their house, they feel comfortable in class and they feel like they are shining, look neat and presentable, and feel confident. This improves their capacity to speak and participate in activities in front of school and the community. Before, they would have worries about ‘maybe I smell, or there is a stain on my clothes’, and they wouldn’t come to school. These kits enable them to stay in school throughout their menstruation. This improves school retention and performance.”
Pauline shares the story of one girl in the Sauti ya Dada club who told her that she is an orphan that lives with relatives who would not supply her with sanitary towels or underwear. Before joining the club, she traded sexual favors to receive 50 shillings, which is less than 50 cents, each month to buy these items. She says that Sauti ya Dada transformed her life and helped her to focus on education. If not for Sauti ya Dada, she believes she would have dropped out of school and eventually been infected by HIV.
All 30 girls in the Siaya Sauti ya Dada club are from vulnerable situations and families and, without the support of this club, they have very little chance of escaping poverty and the compounded effects of teen pregnancy, early/forced marriage, HIV infection, school dropout, and abuse.
After completing two years in the program, Pauline is proud to report that all the girls are still in school and 15 of them are now on their way to study in the University; one girl has been hired as a teacher in their local school; and another girl is now working as a mentor to other girls in a nearby community.
“Sauti ya Dada is a very good space, a very good project, and creates a very big impact. Parents often come and say to me ‘You have changed our girl. You have also improved our relationship with our girl.'" Pauline shares that many parents also learned during the program especially about sexual and reproductive health and, as a result, now feel more comfortable talking to their daughters about these topics.
“I know that all the girls that graduated from the Sauti ya Dada program will go on to be leaders and responsible citizens… they will be positive examples for other girls in the community.”
Learn more about the Sauti ya Dada program here.