• Esther Kibakaya

Tackling menstrual hygiene to keep girls in school

Asnath Aboubakar dreams of becoming a pediatric nurse due to her love for babies and to make that happen, she takes every chance including studying hard to make that dream come true. “I want to be a nurse who can help put smiles on children’s faces particularly the sick ones and I know that will be possible if I study hard and listen to what teachers are telling me, but above all stay away from any temptation that might ruin my future,” says Asnath.

Asnath, 14, is one among thousands of girls across the country who understands her potential to change the world if given support and she is a few steps closer to living her dream.

Asnath, a Form One student at Kiwangwa Secondary School in Bagamoyo District, revealed this when she had an opportunity to talk to a group of youth who visited her school to celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, this year.

Ten volunteers from Tanzania Aspiration Initiative visited two schools in Bagamoyo District, Kiwangwa and Matimbwa with their Jali project aiming at educating young women about empowerment and hygiene. This follows the finding of their previous research on girls understanding the proper knowledge about menstrual hygiene.

Today, despite having so many hopes for their future and several rights as adolescent girls including rights to safe, educated, and healthy life, not only during these critical formative years, but also as they mature into women, these girls are faced with a number of challenges.

Angela John, 18 is one among students who are faced with the risk of getting Urinary Track Infections as majority of girls get infected frequently.

“We have the right to have safe water, apparently that is not the case here. The situation becomes worse during menstruation. The water we get is not safe at all and we fetch it from far, the situation becomes worse for those girls who cannot afford to buy sanitary towels and instead they use pieces of clothes,” explains Angela.

She says their teachers have always tried their best to educate them about reproductive health but sometimes things get out of hand “They have several sessions with us on how important it is to be clean during menstruation but sometimes it becomes so hard because of water shortage.”

On her side, Hadija Coster, a Form One student from Kiwangwa Secondary School feels like more efforts are still needed to improve their learning environment.

According to Hadija, they have to travel for 7 kilometres to reach the well and at times, despite having to walk that long, the chances of getting water are very slim.“We want to have enough time to study like normal children but it is a bit difficult because we don’t have enough safe water. We fetch water from far, sometimes we are forced to use class hours to go and fetch water, sometimes it takes up to four hours,” she says.“We have recurring Urinary Tract Infections due to poor hygiene. I wish we could have a reliable source of water to help us maintain proper hygiene,” narrates Hadija.

Of the over 300 girls, 20 per cent are said to miss out on classes 4 to 5 days a month and some opt to dropout because they have no means of coping during menstruation, something which every woman has to go through.

According to Ines Fidelis, a youth activist and co-founder of TAI Tanzania, this problem is not only experienced by girls in Kiwangwa Secondary School but by many more across the country.

According to her, most of them come from low income families in rural areas and can’t afford to buy sanitary pads hence always use pieces of clothes which cause them to constantly acquire UTI and fungal infections because most schools have severe water problems.

“Some girls use these alternative methods during their menses. How much water or privacy does this alternative means require? What about the worry of its leakage when in the middle of lessons? For all we know the amount of flow differs from month to month and no one can predict. All these concerns raise major challenges,” she queries. She says there is no reason as to why menstruation should be an obstacle to a woman’s success, to a girl’s education because she believes the whole society is responsible in helping them deal with it and give it priority like any other issue.

“Just like the way we have embraced changes in different spheres of life as a society, we should also accept changes on how to deal with menstruation period. The way of life back in the days of great grandparents, is different from ours today so we can’t continue to do what they did. Theirs and our environment are of two different cultures shaped by different circumstances.”

“While a yesterday’s woman was expected to stay still at home nurturing children and caring for the family, a today’s woman due to globalisation, must stand up for herself and her children. To do so, she needs a voice, and that voice can only be attained through education so why should menstruation be an obstacle?”

She said they have chosen to provide menstrual hygiene and reproductive health education and above all, connect young people, guide them to be powerful individuals.

Subira Bawji, a volunteer and activist who had an opportunity to talk with girls from Matimbwa Secondary School says commemorating the International Day of the Girl Child is not just another day but rather a period of moulding role models that we would love our children to look up to by supporting, helping, guiding and leading them by installing positive thoughts into their lives.

“Every girl really wants to learn and wants to be listened to and guided. They have amazing dreams from wanting to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, interpreters; but all crave for more guidance from those in the real world,” Zayana Nassiri a teacher from Matimbwa says most girls come from poor environments and cannot afford proper sanitary towels.

“Sometimes there are those who come from extreme poverty so they end up using cloths because they cannot afford sanitary pads which are sold at Sh2,500 per pack,” explains the teacher.

According to the United Nations, if girls are effectively supported during the adolescent years, they have the potential to change the world both as the empowered girls of today and as tomorrow’s workers, mothers, entrepreneurs, mentors, household heads and political leaders.

“ An investment in realising the power of adolescent girls upholds their rights today and promises a more equitable and prosperous future, one in which half of humanity is an equal partner in solving the problems of climate change, political conflict, economic growth, disease prevention and global sustainability.”

UN agencies, Member States, civil society organisations and private sector stakeholders are called on to commit to putting adolescent girls at the centre of sustainable development goals by investing in high quality education, skills, training, access to technology and other learning initiatives that prepare girls for life, jobs and leadership.

They are also called upon to invest in health and nutrition suitable to the adolescent years, including puberty education, menstrual hygiene management, sexual and reproductive health education and services.

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