She looked down and saw a blotch of red on her otherwise clean uniform. Embarrassed, she quickly sat down. It was the only way to stop the boys from making fun of her. After all the other students had gone, she got up and went home. She did not return to school.
Many girls in low-income communities drop out of school when menstruation begins because they lack information and hygienic material to use.
Days went by before Athieno shared her experience with her late mother’s friend. The woman told her to continue using rags and to throw them away after use. She said, “Nobody should see your blood. It is taboo.”
A year later, Athieno was adopted by an aunt who bought Athieno her first sanitary pads. The gift of pads made the young woman realize that the “problem” of menstruation was not unique to her. The aunt also persuaded Athieno to return to school.
When she got to secondary school, Athieno — a 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow and YALI Network member — suggested to a teacher that they cut pieces of cloth and give them to other girls. She believed all girls should have the right to good health and education and not be hindered by what is a normal biological process. But the teacher considered the idea peculiar.
Convinced that her idea was realistic and desperately needed, Athieno carried it through to university. In her second year at Makerere University in 2010, she began to volunteer with a women’s organization and was convinced her cause was justifiable. “Many girls were using rags or leaves or sitting in the sand during menstruation,” she says.
As part of her volunteer work, she went to Kenya where she found an organization that was distributing sanitary pads to girls. Returning to Uganda, she purchased bed sheet material and cut it into pieces and thought, “What if I inserted something between two layers of this material – something that would absorb the blood?”
She experimented with different types of cloth pads until she settled on one that was washable, comfortable and reliable. “These pads are reusable for at least one year, making them not only affordable, but environmentally friendly,” she says, adding that the pads help young women return to and stay in school. One year’s supply of pads cost just $3, she notes.
Now 30, Athieno has bought four sewing machines to make pads that have helped hundreds of Ugandan girls. In 2013, she founded Aluta Holdings, which holds rights for the reusable “Eco-Pads.” She wants to expand access to the product to other countries.
So far, Aluta has provided pads to more than 400 girls. Meanwhile, Athieno has mentored 200 girls, encouraging them to stay in school.
“I want to impact the whole of Africa,” she says.