Girls can easily manage their healthy issues
By Lazarus Sauti
In Zimbabwe and other African countries, menstruation – a natural biological process — is still associated with false impressions, as well as mismanagement among girls.
This puts young girls in a tight corner, and for most of them, their first period is not necessarily a fun experience as those who lack basic knowledge about menstruation often end up using unhygienic materials like newspapers, old cloth, grass, sand and cow dung to stop the menses.
“Sadly, poverty and this low level of sexual and reproductive health rights education,” assert researchers Sarah Jewitt and Harriet Ryley, “also intensify gendered bodily inequalities as girls face increased risk of sexual exploitation.”
Jewitt and Ryley add that poverty, low level of sexual and reproductive health rights coupled with embedded gender inequalities hinder access to education for some of the girls, particularly those from poor families.
An “extensively quoted” figure, for instance, also declares that “one in 10 school-age girls in Zimbabwe and other African states misses school or drops out for reasons related to her period, and the most detailed reasons for missing school are pain, sickness, fear of leakage and shyness or embarrassment.”
SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, a not-for-profit international institution which recently commissioned studies related to menstruation and school absenteeism in Beitbridge, Binga, Chivi, Gokwe North, Gokwe South, Insiza, Lupane, Mangwe, Masvingo, Mberengwa and Nkayi districts, concurs.
“Most girls are subjected to bullying, some are called funny names while others are isolated by boys if they discover they are on the periods,” notes SNV, adding, “This not only kills their morale, but it also forces them to skip lessons or even drop out of schools.”
Seeing that some promising girls are missing or dropping out of school due to poverty, entrenched gender disparities, in addition to other socio-economic factors inspired the Girl Guides Association of Zimbabwe, a non-profit organisation established to provide suitable programmes in a safe environment for girls in Zimbabwe, to launch the “Yes girls can manage their period healthy” programme at its Harare campsite recently.
Through this programme, which targets girls from the age of four years, the association, supported by the Forum for African Women Educationists-Zimbabwe (Fawezi) and the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, is imparting girls with skills on how to make cheap and reusable pads as well as providing free sanitary products and lessons on menstrual hygiene management to primary school girls.
Warren Park 3, Avonlea, Ariel, Marlborough and some other primary schools in Murehwa and Mutoko districts have so far benefited from the project.
“The programme,” says Tatenda Nyakudya, a Grade 7 pupil at Avonlea Primary School, “helped me to honour my body, as well as dismiss falsehoods about menstruation such as the fear that sharing clothes spreads period pain from one girl to another, and understand issues to do with improving hygiene and sanitation.”
Was it not retired chief executive at WaterAid, Barbra Frost, who said that without sanitation, “you cannot attain universal primary education; you cannot advance gender equality and empower girls?”
Girl Guides international commissioner Florence Madhuku says the programme was started after realising that lack of menstrual hygiene education, proper sanitation facilities and affordable hygiene material for use by girls at home and schools was affecting their potential to access education.
“Our objective is to catch them young and build a responsible citizen; after all, girls can have their periods from as early as nine years of age,” she says, adding, “As an organisation, we also accept as true that empowerment commences precisely in the early stages of a child’s life and this is the reason we are targeting girls from primary school.”
Madhuku also says menstrual hygiene management is essential in ensuring the life of the girl child is not interrupted by menstruation.
“The whole idea ensures that girls continue with their daily routine such as going to school by preventing potential situations of embarrassment and in turn make girls feel more confident about their bodies,” she adds. Girl Guides chief commissioner, Evelyn Munyeki, asserts that the programme is protecting and promoting children’s rights as enshrined in the Constitution of Zimbabwe and the Convention on the Rights of the Children, a United Nations treaty that sets out the basic human rights that all children everywhere are entitled to.
“We are imparting girls of all cultures, traditions and religions with skills and knowledge on menstrual hygiene management and our wish is to enable them to fully develop their potential as responsible citizens,” she says. Mentor as well as health and life skills expert, Ever Munodawafa, hails the programme as “gracious”, believing it is an entry point to talk about different issues affecting girls and women.
“This is a gracious programme as it is discouraging girls from using unsafe and unhygienic materials to absorb menstrual blood,” she says.
“Use of unhygienic materials such as newspapers to soak up menstrual blood can lean lead to infections with long term effects on reproductive health.”
As for girl guide, Pauline Machiona, who is also a teacher, the programme is breaking taboos, in addition to raising awareness about the significance of good menstrual hygiene management for girls in this country.
“It is not a secret that menstruation is not openly discussed in this country,” she says. “For that reason, the programme is an essential step in ensuring that girls not only receive the quality education they deserve, but also live a healthy and dignified life.”
Fawezi’s information and communication officer, Nqobile Nkiwane, urges development partners and the government to chip in and support the Girl Guides Association of Zimbabwe for such a dignified programme, which not only fights taboos and stigmatisation, but also propagate access and retention of girls at school.
“Menstrual hygiene, without doubt,” she says, “has an impact on the development as well as implications on the life of girls related to health, education, mobility and security.
“Accordingly, the government and other stakeholders should channel more resources to fight taboos associated with menstruation and protect girls from all forms of abuse.”
Nkiwane also says girls should always stay clean during menstruation and for this to happen, every school should have adequate bins where used pads can be disposed.
“Schools should also take advantage of the new curriculum, as well as the programme of course, and teach girls on how to make reusable pads,” she adds.
Traditional leader, Zefa Mutauto, says social agents: society, schools and churches should be greatly involved in dispelling myths about menstruation by freely talk about menstruation.
“Furthermore, traditional as well as church leaders should do away with cultural and religious practices that make girls and women seem unclean when menstruating,” he sums up.