Juliana Ama Kplorfia (arrowed), Executive Director, Girls Excellence Movement, with her staff and some students of Ghanata Senior High School, after an educational campaign
Juliana Ama Kplorfia (arrowed), Executive Director, Girls Excellence Movement, with her staff and some students of Ghanata Senior High School, after an educational campaign

The hidden burden of reusable pads for girls in poverty

Imagine a girl in a bustling Ghanaian high school. At 5:30 a.m., she discreetly slips on a reusable cloth pad before the dormitory is locked for the day.

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Throughout the morning, a gnawing fear sits in her stomach, will there be a leak? By 9:00 a.m., the heavy cloth pad and the associated heat signal that it's time to change. But the school bathroom offers little solace.

There is no running water, only a single tap with a weak trickle at best. She manages to change and wraps the blood-soaked cloth pad in a plastic bag. Back in class, she places it in her school bag carefully, but the metallic scent intensifies by the hour, a constant reminder of the hidden burden in her school bag – a growing stack of used, blood-soaked cloth pads trapped in a damp, plastic bag.

This is the reality for countless girls in deprived communities who rely on reusable cloth pads. While a sustainable solution in theory, the lack of basic amenities such as water, soap and sunlight transforms these reusable cloth pads into a source of discomfort, health risks and social stigma.

In Ghana, many schools lack functioning, well-cleaned washrooms, forcing girls to manage their periods in unsanitary conditions. Often, these facilities consist of non-private stalls with no running water or proper ventilation. This lack of privacy makes it incredibly difficult for girls to change pads in privacy and maintain hygiene.

While data on the exact number of schools lacking proper sanitation facilities in Ghana is limited, UNICEF reports in 2022 that in Western and Central Africa, a staggering 74 per cent of adolescent girls aged 10 to 19 lacked access to at least basic hygiene services, including adequate sanitation facilities.

This data paints a concerning picture, highlighting the widespread challenges girls in the region face in managing their menstrual hygiene.  Since access to clean water and soap is a constant struggle in many schools, washing and drying multiple cotton-based cloth pads can be a nightmare, especially during a heavy flow.

Improper hygiene due to scarcity of water and other toiletries can lead to bacterial and fungal infections. The discomfort and constant fear of leaks can lead to embarrassment and isolation. Accidental soiling can lead to teasing and bullying throughout the school years, eroding a girl’s confidence. 

Missing classes

These challenges have a cascading effect. Girls may miss school during their menses due to the challenges mentioned. Missing classes can accumulate into major lost lesson hours, affecting a girl’s performance and hindering her education. Ultimately, their health, well-being and prospects are also compromised.

One girl, 16-year-old Nasara, shares her experience: "Every month, I dread my period. The school bathrooms are terrible and sometimes the tap doesn’t flow, so I use pure water (sachet water  to wash and other times, there’s no water to wash my pads properly.”

Another girl, 14-year-old Naa Koshie, indicates, “Sometimes, I skip classes because I’m too embarrassed about the smell whenever I open my bag to pick something. I feel like everyone knows.”

In the words of Liberia’s former First Lady, Clar Marie Weah, “Menstruating in dignity is part of the fundamental rights of girls and women.” Hence, the heartbreaking challenges these girls face need to be addressed.

We need to ensure that every school has the necessary facilities to support menstrual hygiene. This is not just about comfort; it’s about dignity and equality. Advocates of reusable cloth pads argue that these products offer an environmentally friendly and cost-effective solution to menstrual hygiene.

They emphasise the long-term savings and reduced waste compared to disposable pads, presenting reusable pads as a sustainable alternative that empowers girls to manage their periods with dignity and independence.

However, these benefits are overshadowed by the harsh realities of inadequate infrastructure in many deprived communities. Without access to clean water, soap and proper drying facilities, reusable pads become a source of significant discomfort, health risks and social stigma. The theoretical advantages cannot compensate for the practical challenges and daily hardships faced by girls lacking basic hygiene resources.

Hidden burdens

Reusable cloth pads are a viable option only when supported with proper infrastructure, materials and education. Investment in school sanitation facilities, including running water and private changing areas, is essential.

Programmes that provide access to soap and disposable pads for heavy flow days can offer additional support. Furthermore, fostering open conversations about menstruation and hygiene can help dismantle the stigma. Also, projects such as the Girls Excellence Movement’s disposable Sanitary Pad

Drive serve as an interim intervention in keeping beneficiary girls clean, comfortable and confident in the classroom during their periods. In summary, menstrual health is not a luxury but a fundamental right. By acknowledging the hidden burdens of reusable pads and prioritising investment in water, sanitation and education, we can empower girls to stay in school, manage their periods with dignity and reach their full potential. 

Organisations such as the Girls Excellence Movement (GEM) are actively working to address the issue of period poverty by distributing sanitary pads and providing Menstrual Hygiene education in Ghana. You can support their efforts by donating, partnering and volunteering. Let us all work together for a period-friendly world. The writer is the Executive Director, Girls Excellence Movement

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