“Women You Should Know”: These Teen Founders Are Breaking Menstruation Taboo In Kenya, Empowering Local Girls To Stay In School
Back to back experiences of unexpectedly getting her period and not being able to get a pad or tampon – once while in rural Ethiopia and once on a plane back to Kenya – is what inspired Selah to conceive of the idea that would later become Project Imagine. In an email interview with WYSK, she shared, “Both situations made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, self-conscious, and distracted. I felt deprived of an essential need.” This led the then 12-year-old, who was born in the United States, but has spent most of her life in East Africa between Kenya and Ethiopia, to think about other girls around the world whose circumstances prevent them from having access to sanitary products… all the time.
Motivated by this profound realization of “what we take for granted”, Selah turned her focus on the girls from her area, local Kenyan girls who were her very same age. Recruiting Bella’s help, together they started researching menstruation, looking specifically at the complex issues that surround it when you factor in social stigma and extreme poverty. “We discovered that millions of girls in countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia do not have reliable access to sanitary towels. In fact, every 1 in 10 girls will miss school and eventually drop out due to lack of sanitary towels.”
“Out of 4 million girls in Kenya who need sanitary towels, the government is only able to give supplies to 1 million girls. So there are many gaps in the program that we wanted to fill.”
With that, Project Imagine was born in the Fall of 2015. It was to be the vehicle through which Selah and Bella could “provide girls with sanitary towels, as well as the knowledge and reassurance they need to be able to complete their primary education.”
To turn their idea into reality, the socially conscious duo executed a comprehensive three-pronged strategy: PR, logistical intel, and funding. First, they wrote an article centered on their research findings. It was meant to raise awareness of the problem facing girls in their own backyard with the hope of inspiring their peers at the International School of Kenya to join their cause. Then, with sheer determination on their side, they landed a meeting with the Head of Sanitary Towels in Kenya’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. This proved critical in determining which schools the existing government programs were not currently covering, leaving pockets of critical need and opportunity. Selah told us, “Out of 4 million girls in the country who need sanitary towels, the government is only able to give supplies to 1 million girls. So there are many gaps in the program that we wanted to fill.” Lastly, the teen activists put out their most important ask – funding from friends and family to purchase sanitary towels. After raising over $2,100, the life-changing wheels of Project Imagine were officially in motion.
Selah and Bella’s first distribution visit was to Swani Primary School in Murang’a county, and the reaction of the girls they met speaks volumes about the importance of the work they’d just started to do. “The girls were hesitant to speak with us at first, but got much more comfortable as we began to show them how similar we were to them,” said Bella, who was born in El Salvador and has lived in several different countries. “What shocked them most was that we were the same age as them. This excited them immensely, because we were showing them that girls in the same country as them and of the same ages were doing something so daring and out-of-the-ordinary.”
But that inaugural visit to Swani also made Selah and Bella see how devastatingly deep the shame surrounding menstruation ran for Kenyan girls. “Lacking any sort of education about the bodily changes females experience, the girls were more than just hesitant to talk with us about periods, they seemed almost fearful. It was a topic so hidden away and so undiscussed that the girls seemed to believe menstruation was unacceptable.” The far-reaching implications of internalizing the weight of this stigma quickly became apparent to Selah and Bella. “When a girl is so embarrassed and ashamed of something, regardless of whether she has access to sanitary towels, it is the notion of hiding her period that distracts her in class and leads her to perform more poorly than she would have. The issue is then compounded if she doesn’t have sanitary towels as the fear of leaking through is more than enough to keep a girl at home for the duration of her period, around 5 days a month.” Selah noted, “This adds up to an astonishing 2 months worth of missed class every single year. Consequently a girl is much more likely to do more poorly on yearly exams that can determine whether she proceeds to secondary school (high school), and that’s if she doesn’t drop out, altogether.”
Over the last two years, Selah and Bella have since organized and made 6 sanitary towel distribution visits to two primary schools in Murang’a county, and have grown their Project Imagine team to a small, but mighty force of six that now includes Melissa Askew (age 15), Hanna Irish (age 15), Marie Vandermeulen (age 15), and Vanessa Mutai (age 14). This past June they also gained the support of an adult advisor, Meg McNulty, who is an early childhood development expert from Seattle, Washington, currently living in Kenya.
Project Imagine specifically works with primary schools because Selah and Bella tell us that it’s in grades 6-8 “when girls are most likely to drop out of school due to their menstrual cycle.” The one menstrual product the team continues to distribute is disposable sanitary towels. Selah shared, “In Kenya there is incredible stigma surrounding tampons and other menstrual products because they are thought to be connected to losing your virginity. Many believe that if you insert a tampon or menstrual cup you are indecent and sacrificing your virginity.” She added, “In addition, we use disposable rather than reusable sanitary towels because there is an issue with water supply in the area and reusable sanitary towels require significant water for washing or else they become unhygienic and unsafe for girls to use.”
Adding to the impact of their work, Selah and Bella’s school visits go well-beyond a simple product drop-off. Selah stressed that Project Imagine “also takes time to research and understand the problems these girls are going through related to their menstrual cycle so we are able to talk and give them lessons on these topics.” In doing so, they partner with each school’s Head Teacher or Point Teacher to lead small group activities and discussions on hygiene, menstrual health, and caring for their bodies.
To date, under the leadership of Selah and Bella, Project Imagine has raised nearly $10,000 (independently), every penny of which has been used to purchase sanitary towels for the Kenyan girls they serve. “What we want people to know is that the cost of supporting one girl with sanitary towels for one year is less than $7.” That means, through their initiative, anyone can help keep a girl in school for an entire year for what equates to the cost of a fancy coffee drink here in the States. Because Selah and Bella rely entirely on donations, getting their eye-opening message out to more people is critical for their organization’s survival and expansion.
While the Project Imagine co-founders recognize that they have to be “more rigorous” with their data collection as they grow, the impact of their work is undeniable. “After two years of distributing, the attendance rates and the number of girls moving on to secondary school have skyrocketed.”
Helping to usher in this level of social change has taught Selah and Bella invaluable lessons. Through the girls they’ve witnessed true resilience and the value of education. “The girls we work with go through so much every single day. Some of them walk nearly 6 kilometers (nearly 4 miles) to school each day, just so they can take the opportunity they’ve been given to go to school. Another 12-year-old girl we met was born HIV positive. Her mother, also HIV positive, would walk 8 kilometers (nearly 5 miles) with her on her back every day to and from school. It shows dedication and the importance an education holds for this family.”
But perhaps the greatest lesson Selah and Bella have learned through Project Imagine is the power of self. “It only takes an idea to start something great, and if you are grateful and gracious you can make the biggest difference.”
We are truly grateful to these two young women we are honored to know for making an enormous difference in the lives of girls, and for the incalculable ripple effects their important work will have for generations to come in the communities they serve as they empower more and more girls to stay in school.
As Selah put it so perfectly, “A day longer in school is just that much more knowledge a girl will gain, and knowledge is power.”