Apr 4, 2023
Making a difference, one sanitary napkin at a time

When Joan Gitau read a story in her local newspaper about the devastating stigma around menstruation in Kenya, she knew immediately that she needed to help make a difference.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many in Nairobi, Kenya, to lose their jobs and livelihoods – pushing an already impoverished community further into despair. With parents barely able to put food on their tables, many young girls must go without sanitary napkins. Nearly 65% of Kenyan women and girls cannot afford menstrual products to manage their periods and, according to a U.N. survey, 1 in 10 African schoolgirls miss school during menstruation due to the fear of staining their clothes. Worse, some girls fall victim to sexual exploitation to secure sanitary products, exposing them to diseases and pregnancy. This lack of access to sanitary menstrual products, paired with a stigma around menstruation in many cultures, can also mental health – so much that a girl in Kenya committed suicide because of her teacher’s reaction to her period.

Joan GitauMs. Gitau, who lives in Nairobi and works in nurse case management for Cigna Healthcare International Markets, decided to take action. She applied and was accepted as one of The Cigna Group’s Community Ambassador Fellows. The Cigna Group offers selected employees a three-month, paid sabbatical and funding to pursue community service projects across the globe. For her project, she partnered with the Heels4Pads Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to increase access to sanitary napkins and reduce stigma around menstruation. Through Heels4Pads, Ms. Gitau was connected with a school in a densely populated area for children with special needs.

Working with the school, she set out to accomplish two specific goals: increasing access to sanitary napkins for the schoolgirls in a regulated way so the school didn’t have to distribute them, and enabling students to make their own reusable sanitary napkins. She purchased, installed, and filled a sanitary napkin dispenser in the school that worked like an ATM. Each girl was assigned a swipe card loaded with enough swipes to get the napkins she needed each month. The head teacher was also given a card in case a girl needed more napkins or forgot her card.

Unveiling the school's new sanitary napkin dispenser

The project also provided the young girls with supplies, tools, and instructions to make reusable napkins, and worked with their parents and caregivers to sew reusable napkins for the girls to use when they weren’t at school.This not only drew girls back to school, it also taught their caregivers a new skill to help them save and even make money.

 “The girls, their parents, and their teachers were all so grateful, but the mothers in particular expressed such a relief,” Ms. Gitau said. “I couldn’t have hoped for more success and cannot express how satisfying it was to make a difference to an entire community and know that my impact continues after leaving.”

The Cigna Group Community Ambassador Fellows

Ms. Gitau’s project is one of many global projects that make a difference in local communities. Each year, The Cigna Group selects up to 15 employees and awards each person as much as three months of paid leave and up to $20,000 to develop and launch programs to improve the health and vitality of people around the globe. Since 2017, The Cigna Group Fellows have followed their passions to make lasting changes in the communities we serve. In 2022 alone, these employees did important work in seven U.S. states and four countries.  

Fellows have done important work to reduce infant and maternal mortality in Rwanda, provided suicide prevention and crisis resources to LGBTQ youth in Sioux Falls, Idaho, reduced social taboo around menstruation to help girls in India attend school, and helped U.S. veterans heal physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually through technology.

Learn more about this year’s Fellows here.

we're hiring

Careers at The Cigna Group

At The Cigna Group, we’ve made our commitment to help everyone live healthier, happier, and more fulfilling lives. We’re making real progress, but we still have work to do. That’s where you come in.

Learn more