Lessons from Kenya on Menstrual Equity

Last month our very own Freweini Mebrahtu won the 2019 CNN Hero of the Year award for her hard work and dedication to keeping girls in school by designing a reusable menstrual pad and trying to end the cultural stigma around the issue.  The product she developed was affordable, reliable, and environmentally friendly.  She started in 2005 by testing the product in Kelkel Debri on the edge of Mekelle with lots of success.  She pushed further to get a patent from the Ministry of Innovation and Technology (formerly the Ministry of Science and Technology) of Ethiopia and received a loan from the Development Bank of Ethiopia to build the Mariam Seba sanitary products factory.  Furthermore, she partnered with Dignity Period for financial and logistical support to produce and distribute high volumes of quality menstruation pads to girls throughout Ethiopia.

The factory currently employs 42 local women and produces 750,000 reusable pads a year.  In addition, Freweini is working to end the stigma around the issue by speaking at schools and teaching girls and boys that menstruation is natural, not shameful.  Today, working in partnership with Mekelle University, Dignity Period and Freweini have been able to reach more than 300,000 students.  It is also estimated that nearly 800,000 girls and women have positively affected by the project.  The data they gathered shows that schools visited by Dignity Period organization had a 24% increase in attendance among girls. Read More

Her dedication motivated me to write about the dire issue of menstrual equity and possible ways to address the challenge in line with my profession.  My brief digging around on the topic led me to none other than our close neighbor Kenya.  Kenya was the first nation in the world to end tax and import duty on menstrual hygiene products way back in 2004, helping to reduce their costs significantly for low-income women and girls.  What’s more is that, in 2010, Kenya became the first country in the world to provide free sanitary pads in schools.  In 2017, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed an amendment to the Kenyan Education Act that mandated “free, sufficient and quality sanitary pads” to be provided to every girl registered at school along with safe methods of disposal, cementing their commitment into the law.  The Kenyan Government further showed its continued commitment to the issue when it announced plans to create a “national menstrual hygiene policy” in collaboration with WASH United.

When we come to our domestic situation in Ethiopia, menstrual hygiene management is one of the critical challenges adolescent girls face.  Poor menstrual hygiene management in most of urban and rural primary schools of Ethiopia has been shown to cause adolescent girls:  worry and humiliation; monthly absenteeism; poor performance in schools.  The majority of families in rural Ethiopia are too poor to buy sanitary pads.  There is a lack of information on the process of menstruation and proper requirements for managing menstruation.  To make matters worse menstruation is seen as taboo by many communities.  It is also regarded by many individuals— especially men including myself—as a topic you don\’t discuss.

Ethiopia and Kenya are on par in terms of development and living conditions, which raises the obvious question:  why has the Ethiopian government shown little commitment to tackle the challenge?  A developing country will indeed choose to budget its funds on infrastructure and nationwide development expenditures.  However, in the face of the individual success of Freweini and the Kenyan experience, it does not seem like an adequate excuse to overlook this momentous problem.  If an individual can have such an impact on the issue and if a country similar to ours can show such commitment, what is stopping our government from taking the same initiative?  Our domestic policy does not only show little commitment to the issue, it worsens the affordability of the products by imposing various taxes on them.

Ethiopian laws impose value-added tax (VAT) and customs duty on menstrual hygiene products like any other product.  The custom duty applies to the products when they are imported and the VAT adds 15% to every transaction, raising the price of the final product when it reaches the customer.  Modern understanding of tax exemptions and the experiences of liberal economies suggest menstrual hygiene products constitute basic, unavoidable necessities for women and thus should be classified alongside other unavoidable, tax-exempt necessities such as groceries and personal medical items.  Supporters of the exemption of said taxes call their efforts “menstrual equity,” explaining it as a social movement that strives for menstrual hygiene products to be considered necessities.

I agree the tax unfairly penalizes women who are already suffering on the wrong end of the gender wage gap.  The next step for our government is to exempt the products from tax which is going to take policy advocacy from various activists and organizations.  There are some promising steps taken by the Minister of Health Dr. Amir Aman towards making menstrual hygiene products free from taxes.  While these steps are commendable, there needs to be a better commitment from the government to follow the footsteps of Kenya to implement a national menstrual policy based on detailed research and in collaboration with concerned international organizations.  The government should also learn from and support individuals like Freweini who are the embodiment of the ideals AWiB stands for.  Better said in her own words at the 2019 CNN Hero of the Year award: “Dignity for all!”

You can support Freweini\’s work here.

Hileleule Getachew
January 19, 2020