My name is Sarah Boateng, I am 25 years old and British Ghanaian. I grew up in south London, and I am a Psychology and Special Educational Needs Masters graduate. I am proud to have worked with the UN in Geneva, as well as at Plan International, The International Justice Mission and VSO.
I am also the founder of Investing in Girls Education in Africa (IGEA), a non-profit organisation with a mission to deliver projects that support the quality education of girls in rural parts of Africa. Our aim is to eliminate all barriers blocking girls in Africa from accessing quality education. These barriers can be physical, such as illness, menstruation, distance from school, or mental, such as cultural taboos and the social peer pressure that that creates on the individual. As we are currently at the beginning of our organisational journey, we are focusing our efforts on just one of these barriers to start with – period poverty.
The Period Poverty Effect
Growing up, my own mother would often talk about her struggle to remain in education. Born and raised in rural Ghana, she left school at the age of 12 to sell oranges on the side of the road. It turns out she couldn’t afford menstrual products, and as a result she missed a large amount of school. As she wasn’t able to keep up with lessons, it made more sense for her to leave education completely and instead focus on making money to help support herself and her family.
Hearing this story, it always felt like a problem that was stuck in the past, affecting only a few, very poor, rural girls in Africa. However, when I finished my masters, I went to volunteer on an education programme for 4 months based in Northern Ghana. Here I saw just how prevalent this issue still is today, with periods being viewed as a community taboo which is not openly spoken about. In fact, around 80% of girls living in the Upper East of Northern Ghana have no access to effective period resources. Through speaking to teachers and looking at the school registers, the effects became more obvious. On average, a girl would miss a total of 20-30 days out of school in an academic year compared to boys missing an average of 5-8 days in an academic year. A large proportion of the reasons given for these absences was menstruation, and I found this incredibly troubling.
I have always believed that education is one of the most important investments a country can make in its people’s future. It is the best solution for reducing poverty, catalysing economic growth and increasing individual income. As I spent more time in Ghana, it became clear that for girls in many parts of rural Africa, the opportunity to have equal access to quality education has been greatly reduced. As a British Ghanaian, I felt a connection to these girls and their success – their experience could’ve been mine. I knew I had to do something, and I wanted to start creating a positive change quickly. I couldn’t wait for existing organisations to see period poverty as a priority, it was up to me to find a way to solve this, and so IGEA was born.
Firstly, I began to research and network. I researched on the ground to see how many girls in Northern Ghana were actually still experiencing this problem by doing interviews and focus groups. There were 96 girls from two different communities in the Upper East of Ghana that were involved in the research. It was important to learn from the community to not only understand what the cultural taboos were surrounding periods, but also to ensure that community leaders and families were aware and comfortable with periods being discussed directly with the girls. Our research showed that of those interviewed, 92% of girls stated that they would not attend school whilst on their period, 62% thought that period pain was a punishment from God and 74% were using old cloth as a period resource.
I also started networking by attending events focusing on development and girls’ education, looking to see who would be attending and trying to speak to them about what I was interested in doing, and ask if they had any advice or could connect me to anyone working within that space.
These findings served to prove to me that something had to be done, and I knew I had the determination to start this project.
I started by forming a team with my now project manager that I met when I first worked in Northern Ghana, who has worked in the NGO sector for over 10 years and is based in Ghana. I was then introduced to my co-founder by my mentor, who was working on a team running a similar project in India. They were keen to build on the success they had had there so far and were looking at how they could implement a period project in Africa, so it made sense for us to start working together.
Their organisation was already successfully creating and providing reusable period pad kits to women and girls in India, so I quickly settled on working to replicate this model in Ghana, sourcing the reusable period pad kits directly from my counterparts in India, which in turn is helping support the project running there. This provided me with a way to tackle this period poverty issue in a quick but sustainable manner, while also providing a solution which wouldn’t be a completely new concept to the girls who were already relying on old cloth rags as a best-case scenario. These reusable kits are therefore familiar in their application and are also providing a sanitary and secure alternative that is environmentally friendly. The material used lasts long enough to give the girls confidence to wear all day at school, before washing in their own homes at the end of the day. This is important as many of the communities we work in have no private school toilets.
Starting out, one of the largest hurdles to face was the monetary aspect. I reached out to a few organisations to ask for support to start this project and applied for many youth grants but was turned down on numerous occasions. It’s such a huge problem, and sometimes the idea of being just one person trying to make a difference can be overwhelming. I decided the best thing to do was to start where I was, and even if I was only able to provide reusable period pad kits to 10 girls, then that was 10 less girls that menstruation would not be a barrier to their education.
In order to gather more momentum, I decided to try and speak about the work I was doing at events and get in front of people in the sector. From this, I have been able to raise money to provide pad kits for 100 girls.
Whenever times felt tough, I would always think about why I was doing what I was doing. This helped me to go through challenges and the countless times being told ‘no’, and made me continue to push to get the results I am looking for.
Future Goals and Advice-Sharing
For IGEA, we have just met our fundraising target in being able to provide reusable period pad kits to 500 girls in the Upper East of Ghana for September 2020. We are now working towards fundraising for a mobile reusable period pad distribution service run by local volunteers to serve 1,000 girls spread across 10 communities in 2021. We are also keen to start plans on the development of a production house in Ghana to teach young women to make these pad kits locally and earn an income by selling it to neighbouring cities.
When it comes to my proudest moment so far, I think it’s as simple as just starting. It can be so hard when you feel like you are doing something out of the norm, but to start and follow it through has been my proudest moment.
With that in mind, my top 3 tips for young people who might have a great idea, but are wondering how to get started in reality are: research, network and start where you are.