"Are We There Yet?" SHE's on the Road to Kayonza

Muraho SHE Friends,

This is Connie, SHE’s Global Fellow! I am in Rwanda for the next few weeks to work with the SHE Rwanda staff on business development and marketing strategies as we accelerate forward with commercializing the SHE LaunchPad in Rwanda. 

In order to gain access to girls and women in rural and peri-urban areas, we are approaching schools to become our partners. After our “Breaking the Silence on Menstruation” campaign that included a march in the streets of Kigali in 2010, the Rwandan government had made significant advances in providing school girls, especially those in the rural areas, access to much needed pads, as well as creating private spaces at schools, called girls’ rooms, so school girls have a discreet place to change their pads and rest while menstruating.

So my colleague Sylvere and I headed east to the Kayonza district. We began our long journey to the Eastern region at the Remera bus station. We were lucky to have a big bus to ride in since many of the buses at the station are small, which leads to a loss of all personal space (I’m a New Yorker so I know a lot about that!). We lucked out today, however, and rode for 2 hours or so into Kayonza. 

As someone who is new to Rwanda, the bus ride was an incredible tour of the rural areas of Rwanda. There are really no words to capture the lush, beautiful landscape that makes up this country – the combination of hills and mountains along with the verdant green plantations of bananas or corn can literally humble you.

This photo really doesn't do Rwanda any justice, but trust me, this country is beautiful

 We got off at the Kabarondo bus station in Kayonza by noon and then hopped on moto bikes to the sector Rwinkwavu. Not exactly like my typical work commute of riding on the 6 train!  Moto taxi drivers in the rural areas definitely drive a lot more boldly than Kigali moto taxi drivers, so Sylvere and I were in for a wild, bumpy ride. We finally arrived at our meeting and were greeted by the sector leader and 4 headmasters of primary schools in the region. 

During our meeting, we introduced them to SHE and our work and then discussed with them the specific challenges their school girls have faced in trying to manage their period.  A female headmistress shared that many girls do not even use the pads when they are available while at school because the girls do not even know how to use them properly.  She explained that this is the case since many of the girls’ mothers do not use pads at all. Therefore, providing menstrual health and hygiene education is essential and needs to be taught to everyone within the community, including men and boys.  

School headmasters in the rural areas of the Kayonza district.
In fact, for many rural school girls, the only time that they use pads are while they are at school. At the end of the day, the cost of a multinational brand of pads, which is the only brand available in the village we visited, is prohibitively expensive. Our meeting with the headmasters was a great opportunity to engage with a group of local leaders to share ideas and gain insights on how to best serve our target consumer. SHE is doing more than giving a hand-out to girls and women; we want to work with all community members to fix the problem of lack of access to pads. 

After our meeting, two of the headmasters invited us to their schools. We jumped onto our moto bikes and headed out to a primary school led by a female headmaster. She gave us a tour of the campus, including the girls’ latrines and the girls’ room. The girls’ room is nearby the latrines and provides girls a place to rest, soap so they can wash their hands or any soiled underwear, and pads. 

A girls' room at one of the schools we visited.
The girls' latrine is near the girls' room to ensure privacy for girls.

After touring the campus, the headmaster invited us to speak for a few minutes with the Head Girl. Each school has a Head Girl and a Head Boy that serves as a leader and advocate for the students. We met with Christine and I was so impressed by her maturity when it came to discuss what is considered a taboo subject, especially because even some of the male headmasters, were giggling during our earlier meeting as we talked about SHE's mission.

Christine shared that lack of access to sanitary pads is a major concern for school girls, along with a desire to learn more about menstrual health and hygiene management. Christine added that since most school girls only have access to pads while in school, some girls even prefer to begin their period while at school. If you are at school when your period begins, Christine explained, you can use pads vs. cloths, and most girls prefer using pads than cloths. 

After our school visits, Sylvere and I headed back to Kigali, a little dusty, but filled with great insights and ideas on how to accelerate our commercialization. Stay tuned!

No comments: