Health in Africa

Lack of access to sanitary products, privacy drives girls away from schools in Zambia

New report says girls prefer to stay home during menstruation for fear of staining their dresses, interacting with and being teased by boys, as well as unclean toilets

By Rashmi Verma
Published: Tuesday 28 May 2019

In the western province of Zambia, women and especially school-going girls choose to remain home every month while on their period, says a recent report, published by Maboshe Memorial Centre, a Zambia-based non-profit.

The report, titled Promoting Sustainable Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) and Sanitation for School Going Girls in Rural Schools, highlights the challenges girls face while managing menstruation, and how most of them resort to using unhygienic materials instead of sanitary pads.

According to the United Nations, one in 10 girls in the African continent misses her school while mentruating. In Zambia, the picture is no different. Girls between 10 and 16 years are severely affected by the lack of proper sanitation facilities, including toilets, water, clean surroundings and sanitary napkins.

Traditionally, torn cloths, cow dung, dirty rags or mattress pieces, newspaper or even sand and leaves are used as a soaking medium. Due to the discomfort of using these materials, girls prefer to discontinue their studies and stay back home.

The study collected data through qualitative methods using focus group discussions in seven primary schools — namely Mukangu, Lukulo, Musalonga, Nakanyaa, Mawawa, Kannde and Namachaha schools — located in rural areas in Mongu district of Zambia. The schools were selected based on the availability and status of sanitation facilities.

The key indicators include privacy, cleanliness, menstrual materials, affordability and disposal of sanitary pads. The discussion with girl students revealed deep-seated traditional practices and beliefs surrounding the onset of menarche. The common types of sanitary materials used were children’s diapers, cow dung and pieces of cloths.

Girls prefer to stay home during menstruation for fear of staining their dresses, interacting with and being teased by boys. The girls also reported that the toilets at school were usually unclean and lacked privacy. Therefore, they choose to use bushes to manage their menstruation when at school.

Health risk

All the schools reported not having any emergency sanitary materials for girls. School water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) assessment revealed that the World Health Organization (WHO) standards were not fully met, hence compromising adequate MHM practices at schools.

The study also reported incidences of infection due to improper use of sanitary products. There are serious health issues associated with using inappropriate menstrual materials. Doctors even flagged that the girls and women were suffering from gynaecological diseases due to the improper use of sanitary products, according to the study.

The use of proper sanitary pad is expensive for people living in rural areas as it costs more than $20 (K200) per month. The results of the study bring out the various challenges faced by girls during menstruation in school. They reported feelings of fear, embarrassment, discomfort and seclusion while on menstruation.

The toilets are made of thatched grass, without doors or running water and were not always clean. Additionally, no appropriate clean space and menstrual product disposal mechanism is available in the schools.

The students agreed that proper toilets (connected with water and secure to use), emergency menstrual products at schools and proper disposal areas will help them attend school with full confidence.

The study concluded that breaking free from the taboo surrounding menstruation and raising awareness about good MHM practices can improve the situation. It also suggested lobbying with the government and donor community to subsidise prices of sanitary products and make them more affordable.

Further, the report suggests advocacy meetings with key stakeholders to integrate and mainstream MHM into schools — which is critical to normalise menstruation and help girls utilise their full potential and live a healthy life.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :
Related Stories

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.