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On girls’ education, free sanitary pads

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In June 2016, I read a story in one of the country’s weekly papers that brought me into a sense of shock. The story was about some school girls in Dowa District who were improvising materials such as plant leaves and rags during their menstruation periods just to ensure they attended classes.

These were girls who could hardly afford to buy sanitary pads. One of the girls said and I quote: “Most of us fail to afford modern hygienic menstrual products. Instead, we are forced to use improvised materials such as plant leaves and rags. Not only are they uncomfortable, but they can lead to infections. You cannot be in school with leaves between your legs,” the girl said.

How sad is it that girls should resort to using plant leaves during the menses? It was also reported in the same publication that the lack of sanitary pads, to some, was leading to high absenteeism during school sessions as some would just stay at home up till they had finished menstruating.

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The problem of girls absenting themselves from school whenever they are menstruating seems to be big not only in Malawi but other African countries and beyond.

In Kenya, due to the same problem of lack of access to sanitary pads among girls, which led to girls absconding from school, government just decided to make provision of sanitary pads free of charge so that girls have easy access to them just as it is done with free condoms in Malawi’s hospitals.

There was also the same debate in Zimbabwean Parliament for the country to start providing free sanitary pads to school going girls to help minimise cases of absenteeism which, I feel is a welcome development that Malawi as a country should embrace if the battle against girls’ absenteeism from school is to be won.

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For some months, having read these news reports about the plight of our girls, I have been pondering over the state of some girls and what they wear during menstruation. I realised that being the poverty-stricken country, with reports indicating we are in the top 10 bracket of the world’s poorest countries, most of our school going girls could really be struggling in their pursuit to achieve hygiene during menses.

In shops, sanitary pads sell at about K650 packet. I imagined a rural girl who mostly lacks basic needs and how hard she must struggle to raise that amount to buy a packet.

For some girls whose menstruation cycle could run more than normal, it means extra costs. What a burden. A country which has intensified efforts to address most of the challenges girls face, including education attainment, I wish we did something to help improve the situation our girls find themselves in.

If, as a country, we can afford to distribute condoms to men for free, what can prevent us from distributing free menstruation pads to school going girls?

Free sanitary pads, so I believe, could go a long way in keeping our girls in school for them to compete on equal footing with their male counterparts who are mostly attending classes.

We should bear in mind that due to lack of sanitary pads, most girls have always absented themselves from attending classes. And to make the situation even more worse, there are some public schools, especially in rural areas, that have no toilets.

And this is another area government and non-state actors need to venture into and help.

The lack of toilets is a big blow to both men and women but it becomes more critical to girls during such times because when they are menstruating, they may need to clean themselves or for those with pads replace them, hence the need for toilets to provide a conducive environment for them.

According to Unicef, one in every 10 African girls miss school during menses, eventually leading to higher school dropout rates. And if that missing of classes has partially to do with lack and hygiene during menses, we have an obligation as a country to control this by providing sanitary pads to our school going girls.

Also, a 2011 Water Aid study focusing on the country’s urban secondary schools unravelled girls’ difficulties in dealing with menstruation in schools because of poor toilet conditions. These two reports all point to the grisly conditions that militate against the success of a girl child to attain education astime and again they have to miss school some for days every month. This has a negative effect on their attainment of education.

Both government and non-government organisations working in the empowerment of girls need to act on such areas to ensure girls are continuing with their education without hindrances that could be prevented.

I know of girl-centred organisations that carry motivational talks to girls for such girls to remain in school. Government has also always preached for the girl-child to remain in school but this cannot be actualised if such girls fail to go to school some days due to poor toilet conditions or lack of sanitary pads.

It is time, therefore, government ensured construction of toilets for those schools that do not have. And it is also time some of these organisations started distributing free sanitary pads and more importantly I would wish for government to start providing free sanitary pads for school going girls.

If, for instance, government can distribute free condoms, why can it not do the same with pads for girls? I long for the day girls will start accessing free sanitary pads so they stop using tree leaves and rags between their legs.

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