For years, the topic of menstrual health has been considered ‘taboo’ to a point where young girls who have begun to go through their periodic cycle were ashamed and uneducated on the matter. UNICEF-WASH survey done in seven regions in Ethiopia found that whilst the majority of women and girls see menstruation as a natural phenomenon, there is a strong culture of shame and silence around menstruation. Many girls are unaware of basic menstruation information before they even experience it for the first time.
Every woman who is of age experiences menstrual flow each month whether she likes it or not. For the longest time, menstrual sanitary pads have been treated as luxury items, maybe owing to the fact that for generations, alternate and less effective means of sanitation products were used. Anything other than those homemade bundles of cloth, used by women that came before us, was considered as luxury and not a necessity.
In January 2021, the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance announced the treatment of menstrual health products as essential items, claiming on their twitter page, “Ethiopia has drastically reduced taxes on MHM products from 30 to 10 percent, to make MHM essential products available and affordable for all girls and this is resulting in an increase in access to the products for women and adolescent girls.”
It has been a year since the statement was made, yet the price of menstrual products has skyrocketed to a point where the cheapest menstrual product is priced at 30-35 birr in regular shops.
Although the tax decrease was announced publicly, the changes are yet to be noticed.
“It has been a year since the announcement was made at Hilton hotel in the presence of media, influencers and stakeholders. But the changes have not come. People are still trying to make the change happen. But the priorities right now are understandably different, maybe the effects would be seen post-war, after inflation is mitigated,” said Mickal Mamo, owner of Adey pads, an eco-friendly line that has been in the market for three years.
Determined women across Addis Ababa have joined forces to mitigate this by looking into alternate products or means, through which young girls in rural areas could benefit from.
Amongst these women who have looked into the issue and has come up with a solution is Hanan Mohamed, a designer and a social entrepreneur, who believes in an eco-friendly means of sanitation as the way to go.
Hanan noticed the overpriced nature of western sanitary napkins, which have been known to cause health problems in the past, while simultaneously serving as a non-biodegradable product. She saw the opportunity to build an eco-friendlier alternative that would benefit the country through job creation and environmental protection.
“The products are cost effective, eco-friendly and comfortable; it’s what I always use for myself as well. It’s also a better option health-wise, since the industrially made products have chemicals in them that help our blood clot. We use those products without fully grasping the materials that go into it. We can see the increasing rate of cervical cancer cases, which can be attributed to the use of plastic sanitary napkins. Even though the awareness is lacking, these reusable alternatives are the way to go; in health, environment and cost wise,” said Hanan.
Products such as Hanan’s and Mickal’s promote indigenous knowledge, while blending it with a modern twist. ‘I care Ethiopia’ and ‘jegnit’ instigated a movement that looked for a better means of providing sanitary napkins to the general public at a reasonable price. Lines like Hanan’s and Adey pad, built on that by providing reusable products that would last two and half years for a reasonable price.
Mickal mentioned to The Reporter that out of 36.5 million women and girls who have their periods, 72 percent of them do not have access to proper sanitation equipment. To mitigate these alarming statistics, I care Ethiopia, collaborating with these women prepared a dignity bucket, named ‘berqe’, which has been donated to women who are in need of them.
Even in times like this, where the country is at war, these products are being donated to displaced women and to women at war as well.
“My products are currently being donated to women refugees at Debre Berhan. I am covering the costs through funds from supporters. I employ women at the workshop to create job opportunities for more mothers. We’re preparing packages that include the sanitation napkins, underwear and soap, and donate them to women at war as well as the ones affected by war,” said Hanan.
“We’re also working on reusable adult diapers for old people who have bladder control issues,” Hanan added, while noting the importance of being eco-friendly at an early stage of their development route to avoid further costs in the future.
The taxes imposed on imported and locally made pads do not include reusable pads made in Ethiopia, even though they are more sustainable and healthier. The reusable napkins would be easier to hand out across public schools, since one can last for more than two years. It could also help create jobs, and utilize home-grown cotton.
“Students and parents are satisfied with our products because they get quality products they could use for two years. The stress they used to face before due to lack of sanitary products was a lot. For example, at Hallelujah School, teachers noticed a significant difference in attendance after raising awareness and students are less ashamed to ask for sanitary products and are not missing classes because of it as well. There is change but there is still a lot to be done,” said Mickal, emphasizing on the impact the products have had and what they could do on a bigger scale.
Whatever the reasons for the delay of the promised tax decrease maybe, the solution might be the more sustainable, reusable pads.
“These women have been funding themselves and keeping afloat through volunteers, donors and members of the public. Yet other stakeholders could invest on this environmentally conscious alternative. We have helped around 4000 women but that is only the tip of the iceberg. There is still so much that needs to be done,” concluded Mickal.