Breaking the silence through the Pan-Pads project

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The PansPads Project team with the Australian High Commissioner to Kenya, Ms Alison Chartres, during a visit to Etikoni Secondary School

When vulnerable girls can’t go to school, they’re disadvantaged for life. They’re robbed of their right to imagine, learn and be empowered.

Removing barriers preventing vulnerable girls from being educated is a passion of Angella Ndaka, Project Lead of the Pan-Pads Project, rolled out in two sub-counties in Kenya.

“One major barrier to attending and completing school for these girls is poverty. Parents cannot afford to buy their daughters sanitary pads so they can attend school during their menstrual periods,” says Angella, who completed a Master of Public Policy at the Australian National University in 2015. “The girls aren’t happy or healthy as a result. How can they realistically attend school?”

The Pan-Pads Project, designed to reach vulnerable girls In Kenya’s Marakwet West and Mwala sub-counties, has achieved results far beyond Angella’s wildest dreams—with almost triple the number of girls trained during one-day sessions on self-esteem and menstrual hygiene management. For her work on this project and other gender and social inclusion work in Kenya, Angella was awarded the 2020 Australian National University Alumna of the Year Award.

It all began when Angella established a volunteer team of Australia Awards alumni to work on several development projects, including in communities and with a focus on inclusion. After successfully applying for an Australia Awards small grant, the team set to work on Pan-Pads.

The team targeted 160 girls, supplying them with four sets of underwear, and a year’s supply of reusable sanitary pads, demonstrating how to use them. Demand was so strong that the Pan-Pads Project ended up training 460 vulnerable girls on topics such as menstrual hygiene management and self-esteem.

Project objectives were ambitious and the results impressive. The Pan-Pads project surpassed all targeted indicators with retention rates sitting at 100 per cent and school dropouts over 10 months reducing to zero.

Ten months after project implementation, the head teacher at Mugula Primary School said: “The girls no longer miss school. They are able to manage their monthly periods without missing school.”

Another alumna involved was Dr Mary Onsarigo who completed a Ph.D in Agricultural Biotechnology, Queensland University of Technology in 2017 (Australia Awards). Mary co-led the project and was a main implementing partner. She agrees that project results were beyond expectations.

“After a follow-up meeting with the head teachers in May 2019, we learned that the schools achieved a 64 per cent drop in absenteeism,” says Mary. “In some schools, such as Mugula, all of the students went on to high school and all schools registered zero teenage pregnancies.”

Aside from the volume of vulnerable girls reached and the targets achieved, one of the most significant changes the group of inspirational alumni achieved was at Kerer Primary School where a teacher named the training “Breaking the Silence”.

“It was the first time that students, parents and teachers gathered in one place to talk openly about menstruation,” says Mary. “It was an important milestone because topics related to sexuality are normally taboo when male parents are present. The attitude change was amazing.”

All eight schools involved have registered zero teenage pregnancies and minimal-to-no absenteeism for girls between the 2018 and 2019. “The schools have also reported that the girls are happily managing their menstrual issues without affecting their education,” says Mary.

The Pan-Pads Project is important because it aligns with the health priority in the Kenya Government’s Big Four Agenda, taking the country’s development forward to 2030.

The project team of like-minded alumni used the leadership, project management and stakeholder management skills they had developed while studying in Australia to implement Pan-Pads.

“Even though we’re amorphous, we’re making development progress in our country through this network of women,” says Mary. “Even though we all have permanent jobs, we also have a high level of commitment, setting aside a set time every week to work with our committees to review performance, monitor and evaluate our projects.”

The team’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Using data collected, the team wrote two research papers for the Biennial conference for the 2019 Society for Menstruation Cycle Research Conference held in June 2019 in the United States. Angella presented “Menstruation issues in Kenya: Lessons from Rural Parts of Machakos and Elgeyo Marakwet Counties” and Mary “Menstrual Health Management in Mwala and Marakwet Sub Counties in Kenya”.

The alumni found working with significant stakeholders was key to Pan-Pads project success, including the Kenya Ministry of Education, which supported mobilising girls in schools.

Breaking the Silence has been so successful, the national government and the communities involved have reached out to the Pan-Pads Project team to return. “We hope we get an opportunity to do so,” says Angella.

Other alumni who worked on the Pan-Pads Project in Kenya are Dr. Eucabeth Majiwa, Beatrice Khaseke, Juliana Ndolo and Evelyn Wasike.

Photo Credit: Dr Mary Onsarogi conducting a mentoring session during a PanPads project visit.

Video Credit: Australian National University

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