What started off as a normal day for 14-year-old Nisseah Lossah two years ago turned out to be the worst day of her life.
The Standard Eight learner at Nsoni Primary School in Chiradzulu District recalls the day she started her menstrual period on a normal school day.
However, there were no sanitary napkins or a changing room for her to use at that material point in time.
“As a result, boys laughed at me to the extent that I had to knockoff early and go back home,” she narrates.
Nisseah says, since then, going to school during her menstrual cycle proves to be a burden, more so because, for her to get to school, she has to walk for an hour.
This happens every school day; that is, from Monday to Friday.
She says because of the distance covered, she finds it tiresome to walk back home just to change the piece of cloth she uses and, then, return to school.
“My parents cannot afford to buy me disposable sanitary pads since the materials are expensive. As a result, I do not attend classes when I am doing my menstrual period. Moreover, the distance between home and school makes it impossible for me to go back home to change into a clean cloth and trek back to school to attend classes,” she said.
On average, a packet of disposable sanitary napkins in local shops costs about K600.
Adija Zabula is another girl from Nsoni Primary School who has been facing the same problem for quite some time.
“We do not have enough toilets at the school. I am always ashamed to go to the toilets to change when that time of the month comes because when older girls notice that I am taking care of myself, they laugh at me and alert everyone that I am on my period,” she says.
The 12-year-old says she sometimes misses classes to run away from bullies.
On average, Adija walks about three hours to and from school, which makes it impossible for her to go back home, change her napkin and return to school.
To think that Adija and Nisseah would have dropped out of school because of a natural process almost every woman experiences in their lifetime is surely an obstacle that requires urgent reaction.
Adija and Nisseah represent just a fragment of girls who have been fortunate enough to continue with their studies as non-State actor Water for People recently intervened and constructed extra toilets and changing rooms at the school.
However, one learner from the same district was not so lucky.
She is Annie Ngola, who used to learn at Muhasuwa Primary School.
The girl-learner dropped out of school due to lack of sanitary pads and a conducive environment for girls at the puberty stage.
“I was forced to drop out of school as my parents could not afford to buy me sanitary pads, which are much safer for school-going girls than the piece of cloth we use due to poverty. I ended up getting pregnant after dropping out of school and I could not go back to school,” Annie explains.
Annie is, surely, not the only girl who dropped out of school due to lack of sanitary pads and a friendly environment for girls during their menstrual cycle.
And, indeed, Nsoni Primary School Head teacher, Samuel Diyesi Matiya, confirms that there has been a couple of dropouts and cases of absenteeism at the school due to the problem.
“We would have about 15 to 25 girls missing classes every week in different classes. I am talking about girls who have reached puberty. Our toilets were in bad shape and potable water was a scarce commodity at the school, which led to the proliferation of waterborne diseases as most learners resorted to using unsafe water,” Matiya points out.
He further says learners were forced to drop out of school due to these challenges but, after non- State actors’ intervention, learners barely miss classes and the school dropout rate has dropped.
“This can be linked to factors such as the construction of modern toilets and changing rooms as well as the training of school girls in reusable sanitary pads-making.
“These developments have encouraged the girls to come to school even when menstruating.We also keep some reusable sanitary pads in our office so that girls who do not have any can meet up with female teachers who give them,” Matiya says.
“At the moment, a lot of people do not know when I am in my periods as I silently go to the newly constructed changing rooms, do the needful and go back to class. We are able to go to school with confidence knowing that, even though we use reusable sanitary napkins, we will be able to change them when things get uncomfortable,” Adija stresses.
Nisseah, on the other hand, says she no longer misses classes because of menstrual period.
At the moment, Nsoni Primary School has about 1,374 learners and the population keeps on increasing as compared to the past, when there were few toilets, no changing rooms and no potable water joint.
Chiradzulu District Education Office Human Resource Management Officer, Luckwell Nsonthi, says, before Water for People’s intervention, there was, indeed, an increased rate of absenteeism and low pass rate during national examinations.
“The reason most girls would miss out on classes was because of poor hygiene conditions in terms of latrines. The water, too, was very unhealthy, such that it was one of the factors blamed for the proliferation of waterborne diseases,” he explains.
Nsonthi says the newly constructed pit latrines, changing rooms and easy access to safe water has increased the pass rate of the district during national examinations.
Water for People Country Director, Ulemu Chiluzi, says they are excited with the positive impact of the projects on the district.
“The number of learners that are accessing these water and sanitation facilities is much higher than before because in most public schools, they have more than 750 learners and, every year, we invest in four or five schools. As such, the impact is huge,” he said.
Since 2019, the organisation has constructed water and sanitation facilities for five schools and constructed 152 boreholes in Chiradzulu District.
According to United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund’s 2018-19 Education Sector Overview, the country has about 6,065 primary schools and 1,411 secondary schools.
However, out of many public schools in the country, only a handful school, especially those in the rural areas, have access to safe water and changing rooms.
Matilda Chimwaza Majawa is a Features Reporter at Times Group. She is passionate about women and girls empowerment.