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Menstruation: Private groups boost efforts to keep girls in school

Sasa Rescue Centre
Sasa Rescue Centre officials when they distributed menstrual cups to students at Kashani Secondary School in Kiembeni, Mombasa on January 20. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT 

When Jane Wamaitha received her first menstrual period, dying was the first thought that came to mind.

Aged 11 years at the time, she stuffed pieces of cloth and cotton inside her body to stop the bleeding.

Terrified and lost, she hid this from her parents and hardly concentrated in class as she worried about soiling her uniform which would invite ridicule from her classmates.

“I had no clue what menstruation was at the time I got my first period and thought I had hurt myself,” says Ms Wamaitha now aged 18 years.

She represents the confusion and hurdles thousands of adolescent girls in Kenya contend with as they go through formal schooling.

But things often get worse. Only recently, a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Bomet hanged herself after being humiliated by a teacher for having her period and staining her uniform.

And even with such upsetting incidents, many young girls still lack support and continue to live in aguish often having to skip school or risk urinary tract infections if they use inferior products or make-do substitutes, especially among those from poor households who cannot afford the conventional sanitary protection products.

An initiative by the government to provide sanitary towels to school girls is yet to fully have an impact with many still reporting that sanitary protection remains unavailable and unaffordable.

The programme came into force in June 2017 when President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law a Bill to amend the Basic Education Act. The amendment mandated the government to provide free, sanitary towels to every girl registered and enrolled in a public basic education institution and has reached puberty.

Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha last year admitted that the government scheme had not met its target.

"Last year, money was provided by the government to provide sanitary pads. From a random sampling of children the reports are they are yet to get the pads," Prof Magoha said in Nairobi.

A parliamentary committee is currently investigating why the free sanitary pads programme is yet to be rolled out across all schools.

But in the meantime, unscrupulous individuals are taking advantage of the girls’ predicament cashing in on it.

Last month reports emerged that police officers in Juja, Kiambu County had seized expired sanitary pads issued by the government and branded GOK at a residential house. The culprits were said to be in the process of repackaging the products for sale.

And girls are paying a high price. In January, the country was shocked to learn that school girls from Meru County were offering sex to get money for sanitary pads.

Rather than wait for the government to get its act together, a growing number of private organisations are taking matters into their own hands. They are supplementing the government’s efforts by providing sanitary towels and menstrual cups as well as awareness on menstrual health management.

Dada Cups, ZanaAfrica, Inua Dada are among private organisations that have stepped in the gap to ensure adolescent girls stay in school as government’s free pads programme struggles to take off.

“Our plan is to ensure that every girl child remains in school,” said Eva Mwangi, founder and chief executive of Dada Cups that was recently unveiled in Nairobi.

Data Cups distributes free menstrual cups to needy girls. Their products are also sold through selected stores. The menstrual cups are small, flexible funnel-shaped and made of medical grade silicone that helps to collect menstrual flow rather than absorb it, as pads and tampons do.

Once the cup is inserted in the body, it creates a vacuum in the vaginal canal and does not interfere with the users’ activities of the day. The 15 millilitre cup can be re-used for up to five years as long as high levels of hygiene are maintained.

Another organisation that is making an impact is ZanaAfrica, which provides pads and lessons on reproductive health.

“Our menstrual and reproductive health educational materials are paired with sanitary pads to provide girls … more control over their bodies, their decisions, and their futures,” said Alison Nakamura, ZanaAfrica executive director.

The foundation works through after-school clubs where mentors deliver its specialised reproductive health curriculum in customised modules over a year and a half.

Since 2013, the foundation has provided 50,000 girls across the country with its holistic intervention.

Inua Dada has taken up the role of ensuring girls are empowered by having their basic needs met and rights respected.

Since its founding in 2013, the organisation has reached 108 schools and distributed 91,440 sanitary packets.

A 2016 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) report estimates that one in 10 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa is absent from school during their menstrual cycle. In Kenya, the Education ministry recently estimated that a girl absent from school for four days in 28 days loses 13 learning days equivalent to two weeks in every school term.

This means that in a single academic year (nine months) a disadvantaged girl without access to sanitary products would lose up to 39 learning days equivalent to six weeks of class time.

The United Nations estimates that as many as 20 million girls drop out of schools across the world every year because they cannot deal with their menstrual flows.