For many adolescent girls around the world, puberty is a vulnerable time when they face various pressures and challenges—including sexual harassment, abuse, sexual predation from men and boys, early marriage, and unintended pregnancy—which threatens their health, confidence, and wellbeing. These challenges are amplified when girls lack the knowledge and tools they need to navigate puberty safely and with dignity.
In Kenya, sanitary pads are out of reach for 65% of women and girls, while there is also no mandated menstrual and reproductive health education that provides girls with the answers they seek and deserve about their changing bodies as they enter adolescence.
The impact of this is cascading negative outcomes that start at the onset of adolescence: girls in Kenya drop out of school at a higher rate than boys beginning at puberty, 45% do not know about periods before they have them; 43% of girls’ first sexual encounter is forced or unwanted, yet, 95% of girls do not know this is a violation of their human rights.
These alarming statistics are just a few of the critical reasons that Kenya-based ZanaAfrica is committed to expanding access to reproductive health education and sanitary pads for adolescent girls in East Africa.
Known as a global thought leader in menstrual health management and engaging adolescent girls since 2007, ZanaAfrica is creating a scalable solution through sanitary pad innovation, and through a rights-based reproductive health magazine called Nia Teen. Nia, or “purpose” in Swahili, celebrates real girls, highlights their heroes, and includes an innovative comic that walks alongside girls as they go through the joys and challenges of growing up.
Nia Teen is a friend, a confidant, and a shareable resource that celebrates adolescence and answers girls’ pressing questions and concerns. Each issue, rooted in over 10K questions collected by ZanaAfrica from 1K girls over four years, seeks to answer girls questions and concerns about their changing bodies and their rights, for instance:
“When I get my period for the first time what can I do?”
“What can I do to not feel ashamed of my period?”
“How would you avoid boys when a boy tries to rape you or injure you?”
“What if your mother forces you to have a boyfriend so that they get wealth?”
User-tested and designed for knowledge retention to foster self-efficacy during puberty, Nia Teen not only deepens girls’ understanding of menstruation and puberty, but also strengthens their voice, agency, and choice. With a quarter of the world’s population entering puberty by the year 2030, their scalable resources to support girls could be one of the key solutions the world is looking for. As ZanaAfrica’s Founder and CEO Megan Mukuria remarked, “if we do not help girls stay in school and safely navigate adolescence, we’re sunk.”
Through ZanaAfrica’s programming, girls are already showing positive improvements. In one study, 100 of 400 girls who received their interventions moved into the top 10% of their class; in another study of 800 girls, school attendance increased by 55% and two additional schools surveyed reported that 100% of adolescent girls matriculated to high school for the first time ever.
Of the 10,000 girls they served in 2016 alone, 98% of them reported feeling better able to manage their periods and handle negative peer pressure.
This June, ZanaAfrica will be taking their research efforts one step further, through the Nia Project, a randomized controlled trial funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and carried out by The Population Council.
In this formidable study, ZanaAfrica will rigorously measure their interventions to determine the degree to which the provision of sanitary pads and reproductive health education (through Nia Teen and its corresponding facilitated health education, Nia Yetu) has on girls' life outcomes. This study represents a major step forward in the quality of evidence on approaches to improve the health, education and social outcomes of adolescent girls in Kenya.
ZanaAfrica is making great strides to ensure that menstrual health management is recognized as a critical and timely issue, central to women and girls’ development. With the world headed towards its youngest population in its history, ZanaAfrica’s interventions may be the solution to support the next generation of leaders we know the world is waiting for.