Design for girls, by girls. Period.

Solutions should always be grounded in the people who use them. This is the value of “human-centred design”, an approach UNICEF is using to complement traditional expert- and research-based thinking. By understanding the people who will use the solutions — their wants and needs — UNICEF is developing creative, sustainable solutions they will embrace.

Putting youth at the centre of improving menstrual hygiene in Pakistan

At UNICEF Pakistan, colleagues have been using human-centred design to create innovative solutions that improve menstrual hygiene practices among adolescent girls. Despite progress in water and sanitation goals, millions of girls and young women still don’t have access to basic knowledge and necessities for managing menstruation. Last year, this gap was confirmed by more than 600 female U-Reporters through a poll administered on U-Report PakAvaz, UNICEF’s free digital engagement platform. 49% of female U-Reporters responded that they had no knowledge of menstruation prior to their first period. One girl confided, “When I first got my period I didn’t tell anyone for several days because I was ashamed, it took me two months to open up to mother.”

A group of young people holding a commemorative placard, standing in front of backdrop with the words "Be Bold. be Free"
© UNICEF/Pakistan/2017U-Reporters who participated in the MHM Innovation Challenge in June 2017.

Designing effective menstrual hygiene solutions means not only listening to girls and boys, but also working directly with them to co-create solutions. In June 2017, based on research and feedback received from U-Reporters, and with The School of Leadership, a national youth-led organisation, Pakistan colleagues launched the MHM Innovation Challenge. The Challenge calls upon youth, including U-Reporters, to design innovative solutions to menstrual health and hygiene issues they face in their communities.

The participation and enthusiasm from young people, especially girls, was resounding. The Challenge received more than 60 proposals – many of them outlining technology solutions for menstrual hygiene. Seven creative winners were selected to receive guidance from experts and seed funding to build, pilot, and scale their ideas in their communities.

An animation still of two girls talking to each other
© UNICEF/Pakistan/2017Raaji, an animated female character who empowers young women with knowledge on menstruation. Saba Khalid and her co-creators tackle the stigma surrounding periods by turning Raaji into an online chatbot where girls can go for advice.

Winning proposals included:

  • The Brown Paper Bag project, a digital online community for girls to discuss menstruation with their peers
  • Raaji, a female character who tackles the shame and stigma surrounding periods and conveys powerful messages to young women in short animations
  • MAAM, a fun and interactive virtual support network to de-stigmatize conversations around menstruation by educating young girls and boys
  • “The Change Every Girl Needs”, a mobile app to help girls track their period cycles while linking to relevant information, e.g. recommendations on pain medication


“UNICEF is incorporating learnings from the initiative into its work to promote positive societal norms on menstrual hygiene,” reflected Kitka Goyal, the Chief of WASH, on the success of the initiatives. “Moving forward, we plan to continue working together with youths to scale-up promising ideas from the Challenge to ensure that girls have an equal opportunity to manage their menstruation with dignity.”

Seven girls standing and holding a commemorative certificate featuring the phrase: CRIMEHACK4.
© UNICEF/Pakistan/2017Team Mama, Global Citizenship prize winner at CHIMEHACK 4, with Susan Chokachi, Gucci (far left) and Patty Alleman, UNICEF (second right). Team Mama developed a chatbot app and SMS platform to help pregnant Syrian girls living in refugee camps access sexual health info and medical professionals.

Sharing to speed up global gender equality

Building on Pakistan’s experiences with a digital MHM chatbot, real-time, personalized responses to girls’ questions is being scaled in other countries like Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Cote d’Ivoire to fit to their local contexts. In Cote d’Ivoire, consulting with female influencers has led to better engagement of girls on U-Reporter through “girl-centred content”. Globally, UNICEF and founding partner Gucci launched the Girls’ Empowerment Initiative at CHIMEHACK4, a hackathon where young girls and boys prototyped technological solutions to reach school-aged refugee girls with quality education. These Country Office experiences, along with lessons from design leaders like IDEO, have formed a roadmap for human-centred design that targets and incorporates a subset of users — girls — into every step of the process: generating tons of ideas and prototypes with girls; testing pilots with girls; putting innovative solutions out in the world for girls to use; and constantly improving solutions with feedback from girls.

A young girl ponting at charts on a whiteboard behind her as she speaks into a microphone
© UNICEF/Mongolia/2018Consultation with girls in Mongolia to design a period tracker app.

This “girl-centred design” roadmap is being tested in East Asia and the Pacific Region where, like in Pakistan, menstrual hygiene is a priority. UNICEF has collaborated with local design facilitators, youth networks and other UN agencies to organize workshops in Indonesia, Mongolia, and Papua New Guinea to design a mobile period-tracker app with adolescent girls. The girls — from diverse backgrounds — will participate in fun workshops made up of group discussions, role playing, story-boarding, and sketching mock-ups and models of the solution. “We’re aiming for two outcomes,” explains the Project Manager, Sarah Atkinson. “Firstly, to develop an app that girls will want and love to use; that will provide them with the tools and content to be better informed about their menstrual health. And secondly, to document the process so others in different countries can adapt it and try it out in their context.”

The potential of human-centred design is endless. It can accelerate results for gender equality and girls’ empowerment. It helps to share results and solutions with other countries and regions, including those in emergency settings. It can be used to engage boys, caregivers, and teachers while helping tackle other gender issues like gender-based violence and child marriage.

For UNICEF, it is only the beginning to ensure that girls’ needs, ideas, and experiences are at the heart of the design.


Gloria Lihemo is WASH Specialist at UNICEF Pakistan

Rosemary Arnott is Gender & Development Specialist at UNICEF Pakistan

Marziyya Malik is U-Report Manager at UNICEF Pakistan

Betty Chang is Research Consultant, UNICEF HQ

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