[embedplusvideo height=”365″ width=”600″ standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/cluf9SGem6Y?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=cluf9SGem6Y&width=600&height=365&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=¬es=” id=”ep6069″ /]
It is a bright Tuesday morning as some 20 teenage girls at Nyambogo primary school in Western Kenya play on the football pitch awaiting the bell that signals the start of mid morning classes.
However, Sylvia Matasia (not her real name), a 13-year old class six pupil is not among these girls.
She is at home and will probably miss school for the next four days. She is on her monthly period; that time of the month that every poor girl in the village dreads due to lack of sanitary pads.
I track Sylvia back home and find her busy with household chores. When I ask her why she is not in school, she smiles shyly and says she ‘is not feeling well.’
Her mother reinforces this assertion saying her daughter is suffering from ‘small malaria but will be fine in three days’.
I later learnt from Sylvia’s teacher that the ‘sickness’ mother and daughter were referring to is menstruation.
Being conversant with the African tradition, I understand the reason behind their silence on the matter and their unwillingness to state the truth.
Menstruation is treated as a taboo topic in many African families in the village. It has been documented that some teenage girls see menstrual blood as unclean and harmful.
In some studies in Kenya, some girls even confess that they do not go to church or school while menstruating.
Just like Sylvia, most of her colleagues will also miss at least three days of school every month due to this unavoidable biological process that signifies the beginning of maturity for women.
As the girls stay out of school, boys zoom past them in academic achievement, a phenomenon that has seen widening disparities among girls and boys in the transition to secondary school.
It has been documented that lack of sanitary pads undermines sexual and reproductive health of girls apart from restricting access to continuous education.
Millions of young African girls have their school session disrupted because of menstruation.
According to UNESCO, one in 10 African adolescent girls miss school and eventually drop out because of menstruation-related issues such as the inaccessibility of affordable sanitary protection, the social taboos related to menstruation and the culture of silence that surrounds it.
On average, sanitary pads, a basic necessity for girls, cost about Sh85 ($1) yet this is still too costly for most families who often struggle to afford one meal a day.
Mobile app for sanitary pads distribution
Most non-governmental organisations have however stepped in to address the plight of such girls but the greatest challenge is how to detect and distribute the pads to deserving girls.
One of the partners, Zana Africa, in conjunction with Chase Group Foundation recently launched a mobile application to boost the distribution of sanitary towels in Kenyan schools.
Dubbed, Nia Network, the app aims to coordinate the distribution of sanitary pads nationally by documenting recipients so as to guide willing donors on deserving schools.
According to Jane Mwereru, an assistant quality assurance and standards director at Kenya’s Education ministry, an estimated 850,000 girls miss school every month due to lack of sanitary towels.
“With 43 per cent of Kenyans under 15 years old, the need is growing every year,â€ she says.
Mrs Mwereru says eight distributors have donated over 18 million sanitary pads and 900,000 underpants to 260,000 girls in 2,500 schools in Kenya.
According to Zana Africa CEO Megan Mukuria, the app can be downloaded by any party interested in distributing sanitary pads to school girls by filling an application form.
Once a distributor logs in, he or she creates an account and enters the name of the school he has distributed the sanitary pads to.
This is recorded to avoid multiple donations and aid other distributors choose other deserving schools.
To launch the app, Chase Group Foundation and ZanaAfrica have announced a Sanitary Pad giveaway Challenge.
Parties interested in distributing sanitary pads to school girls can download the app and fill out an application form to donate annual supplies of pads and underpants to 7,600 girls.
Both the app and the form can be found through the Chase Bank website (chasebankkenya.co.ke)
Research has partly linked lack of sanitary pads to poor academic performance among adolescent girls in schools.
One such study published by The Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI), indicates that girls miss between 3-7 days of school a month due to menstruation.
The study also found that ‘use of sanitary pads is linked with missing more days of school, perhaps in part because girls are busy trying to obtain sanitary pads.’
The study done under the mentorship of DGHI faculty member Sherryl Broverman partly evaluated the effect of commercial sanitary pad use on school attendance among Kenyan adolescents.
Sex for pads
According to another research done by former DGHI postdoctoral fellow Eve Puffer, it is common for girls to engage in transactional sex or seek out a boyfriend to help pay for pads or other items like school fees.
Consequently, if a girl becomes pregnant, it is likely she will drop out of school.
â€œAs an alternative to commercial sanitary pads, other girls used handmade or reusable pads such as rags, multiple underwear, tissue or old pieces of mattress.
“This group missed slightly fewer days of school than girls who used commercial sanitary pads; however, they were more likely to suffer from vaginal infections,â€ the research reads in part.
This highlights the reason behind governments and civil societies efforts to address poverty which has an impact on affordability of sanitary pads.
Most girls interviewed during the study said their overall school experience is ‘negatively affected by menstruation and negative emotions like shame, embarrassment and ridicule.’
Much of the focus to date has been on keeping girls in school, but Stopfordâ€™s research is an example of the need to also highlight improving their school experience.
A report from the African Population and Health Centre (APHRC) in Kenyaâ€™s urban informal settlements, allude to the fact that with sanitary pads, girls can participate more fully in classes, have greater concentration and feel more comfortable.
Already, almost half a million Kenyan school girls have access to free sanitary towels through a State initiative supported by UN Women. The initiative is a great leap forward in Kenya.
According to the outgoing Education Permanent Secretary James ole Kiyiapi, the beneficiaries were selected from among 4,114 schools across the country, from class levels four to eight.
He said the Ministry is committed to supporting young girls overcome barriers in education.
â€œThese challenges range from obsolete cultural practices and increasingly, those related to poverty,â€ he said.
He indicated that provision of the sanitary towels would greatly improve the school completion rates of girls in vulnerable communities.
â€œWe also invite corporate organisations and private individuals to join in this endeavour,â€ he added. The Government allocated 3.34 million dollars in its 2011-2012 budget to the initiative.
The allocation followed a pledge made in May 2012 by the Government at a roundtable meeting organised by UN Women.
The pledge sought to push for implementation of the gender equality and equity principles in the new Constitution.