Leading the Charge for Female Health in Nigeria’s Refugee Camps

Leading the Charge for Female Health in Nigeria’s Refugee Camps

Why you should care

Because the effects of unaffordable sanitary supplies can ripple throughout a lifetime.

One evening in January 2015, Oghenekaro Omu was in her London flat, exchanging tweets with friends from back home in Nigeria, when the conversation took an unexpected turn. Her friends were upset that the cost of sanitary pads had nearly doubled within a span of a few months to N350 ($0.96). Even worse, the price hikes were coming as the Nigerian economy suffered its first recession in 25 years. “Many women were of the opinion [during the conversation] that pads should be free,” says the 25-year-old freelance social media specialist. “It really got me thinking about girls from low-income homes and the girls and women in the IDP camps.” (These camps for Internally Displaced People house some 2.2 million refugees fleeing the terror of Boko Haram.)

Omu decided to act on her concern. Although she had only been in the U.K. for a couple of months, she promptly packed up and was back in Lagos within two weeks of the viral Twitter exchange. By the end of the week she had set up Sanitary Aid Nigeria. “I decided to send out a tweet to tell people I was going to start giving out pads, and they could support,” Omu says. “There were no laid-out goals at the time; I just wanted to do something about it.”

It’s a women-for-women effort — young women, for young women. That sort of ownership is really powerful.

Ritgak Tilley-Gyado, public health expert

The challenge was enormous. In one lifetime, the average woman uses 10,000 sanitary pads. And in Nigeria, about 65 percent of women cannot afford them and so may never use them. According to UNICEF, one in 10 school-age African girls do not attend classes during menstruation or drop out at puberty because of a lack of clean and private sanitation facilities in schools. In Nigeria’s IDP camps, which house as many as 25,000 refugees, up to 100 people might share a single toilet. Women and girls use rags that they must secretly wash, hang to dry and then reuse.

By offering a product that can reduce the risk of infections during menstruation, Omu’s organization is helping ensure that girls and young women remain healthy throughout puberty and the rest of their reproductive lives. All of which means they’ll have a greater chance of surviving childbirth, and that their future babies will be born healthy. “It’s also about the dignity of girls and women and how interlinked this is to many other facets of development,” says Ritgak Tilley-Gyado, a public health expert who works as a technical adviser to Nigeria’s health minister.

Since launching her nonprofit, Omu and her team of six volunteers have delivered more than 4,600 sanitary pads to some 4,300 girls and young women between the ages of 11 and 20 in public high schools, special needs schools and IDP camps across Nigeria. In September an additional 1,800 pads will be distributed to 600 more people. The beneficiaries of these monthly outreaches are spread across cities like Maiduguri in the north, Abuja and Jos in the Middle Belt, and Ibadan and Lagos in the south.

But it’s not just sanitary products that Omu and her crew dispense: It’s also much-needed information about a subject that’s often taboo. “Along the journey, we’ve met many girls who had never used pads before,” says Omu. “However, most of the experiences we’ve had involve girls with questions about their menstrual cycles that have never been discussed with them. We do our best to answer these questions.”

So far, crowdfunding has been the main source of support, along with team members intermittently chipping in with donations. Omu admits that this financial model is unsustainable. Sanitary Aid Nigeria currently is seeking long-term partnerships with brands affiliated with girls and women, especially given the organizaton’s goal to reach more Nigerian states. Another long-term goal: introduce reusable pads as an opportunity to promote sanitary hygiene that also benefits the environment. “We also intend to begin lobbying for policies that would get the government to support girls with free pads,” she says. “Many countries around the world are starting to do this, and I believe Nigeria can emulate this [policy].”

Scotland has begun a six-month pilot project that offers free sanitary pads to low-income citizens. Elsewhere, the governments of Kenya and Botswana recently announced plans to make pads free for schoolgirls.

Eromo sanitary 3

Sanitary Aid Nigeria dispenses sanitary pads to women who can’t afford them or don’t have access to them, including these refugees who fled Boko Haram’s terror campaign.

Source Eromo Egbejule

Tilley-Gyado believes that initiatives like Omu’s can play an important role in addressing the issue. “Such crowdfunding and crowdsourcing efforts are valuable in … complementing government’s efforts. … It’s a women-for-women effort — young women, for young women. That sort of ownership is really powerful.”

Certainly the beneficiaries of Sanitary Aid Nigeria are keen to show their appreciation for Omu and her volunteers and constantly look for ways to keep in touch with them. “The girls in some of the locations I was unable to go to personally made videos and said ‘Thank you,’” Omu recalls. “It’s really one of those things you think you’re used to yet every experience is special.”

A few weeks ago, volunteer Olamide Odukoya was walking home from work in the city of Ibadan, 80 miles north of Lagos, when two teenage girls approached her, smiling but not saying a word. One of the girls began hugging the confused lady, while the other girl scribbled “Methodist” on her own arm. It was then that Odukoya made the connection. “I remembered the name of the school with the deaf and dumb unit — the Methodist Grammar School,” Odukoya says. “I wanted to cry.”

* The original version of this article misstated Nigeria’s economic status. It is currently suffering its first recession in 25 years.

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