Brighton Christopher became increasingly worried when a growing number of students would miss classes for longer periods of time each month. As a teacher at Talawanda Secondary School in Chalinze, Pwani region, he wanted to get to the bottom of the concern and help the female students continue with their education. Upon investigation, he came to realise that it was due to menstrual issues that the girls would sometimes abscond attending classes.
Menstrual hygiene is at the core of many academic-related problems for school girls, especially in Africa. But it is also a global issue. Many girls miss days off school, or some may even drop out altogether for one simple reason: their period.
Due to period-related quandaries, girls miss out on quality education which has the potential to transform a girl’s future, giving her opportunities that she otherwise may never have had.
The difficulties are due to a number of factors, including the availability of menstrual hygiene products such as sanitary pads and tampons, stigma and shame that surrounds periods, and misinformation, all of which contribute to young girls being forced to stay home during ‘that time of the month’.
The alarming rate at which girls do not attend school during their period is what made Brighton take notice of the void. “Our school has a hostel where the girls stay, but also some of them live nearby. I noticed that each month, many of the girls were not coming to school, and I saw that this was even impacting their performance in their exams. At times, they were even missing a whole week, and this meant that they were really falling behind in their education,” the concerned teacher said.
Brighton said that at first, the girls were very shy to speak and tell the teachers why they haven’t been attending class, however, they eventually would say ‘anaumwa’ [she is sick], and infer that someone is on their period. As a teacher, Brighton said he felt very disappointed: “I wasn’t happy when I found out the girls were missing classes during menstruation. As a teacher, I really want to see my students do well, but many of the girls were unable to reach the top scores as they were missing so many lessons.”
Talawanda Secondary School decided they had to make some changes in order to make the girls feel more comfortable, with support from local NGO Femina Hip, with their ‘Red Agenda’ programme. This meant investing in products, education and infrastructure. And the way they did this was through an innovatitve business and entrepreneurship plan –starting a garden, where they would grow vegetables, and also keep chicken, and then sell the produce to make money for the school. They then used this money to invest in girl’s education - through buying sanitary pads, improving access to clean water and educating both boys and girls on issues surrounding menstrual hygiene.
Brighton noted that it was important to include the male students in the lessons on periods: “the boys would often tease the girls if they saw they had blood stains on their skirt, and that made the girls even more shy and ashamed. So it was important to also educate boys on the issue of hygiene – we all need to support girls to stay in school. We used a mix of songs, drama and debates to give out information, and then we selected two female leaders to continue supporting the students on this,” he said.
Since the changes were put in place, the teachers have noticed a significant difference in the attendance of girls at school.
But Talawanda Primary School is not alone, Barefoot College, an NGO working in rural areas in Zanzibar gives out education on menstrual hygiene as a way to keep young girls in school. Brenda Geoffrey, a Programme Coordinator at the NGO, said that when they look at the attendance sheets, the older the girls would get, the more you would see their school attendance go down. Students have told her instances where they have come to school while on their period using a khanga or kitenge, which is not comfortable and doesn’t last the entire day, forcing them to go home at lunchtime.
Through prioritizing menstrual health in the schools, Brenda says this can improve girls’ confidence, and support them to get a better education: “in each school, it is important to have a teacher who is trained to give education on menstrual health – to the female and male students. Schools can also invest in getting supplies, such as sanitary pads and painkillers, so that if a girl starts her period in school there is a place she can go to get what she needs, and then she can continue with her lessons. Availability of clean water is also important, especially in the rural areas, so girls can keep themselves clean and healthy,” says Brenda.
But perhaps what is most important, Violet Mushi, a teacher at Kisasa Secondary School in Dodoma, argues, is changing the attitudes of the teachers themselves, ensuring that they are a source of support for the girls. She explains that most girls are returning home – not due to availability of pads – but because they have shame and fear around their period: “the girls no longer feel shy with me, they feel comfortable enough to tell me they are menstruating and need a pad, and then I am able to help them. We now have an emergency room with pads, water and soap, and bins, where girls can change, clean themselves and return to their classes,” she says.
Before they received support from Femina Hip’s Red Agenda Programme, Violet said that similar to many schools, they had a problem of female students missing lessons due to their period, but girls would just cite the reason as being ‘sick’. This was taking a toll on their performance: “as teachers, we do not have the time to repeat the topic or the lessons for those that weren’t there. You could even find some girls missing their exams, and they would in the end score zero,” she explains.
Violet now recognizes that small initiatives to make the girls feel more comfortable about their periods can make a huge difference in their attendance: “on some days I can receive around five students that need support. Instead of going home, they get the products they need and can go back to class. I feel very proud to be helping the girls. They tell me they are happy they can stay in school,” says Violet.