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Stemming menstrual sanitation challenges in urban schools

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Though it remains a taboo to talk about a female’s monthly periods in public in most African countries including Malawi, the girl child’s plight over issue of menstruation particularly in schools remain glaring.
The positive impact of educating girls can never be over emphasised and yet the girl child still misses school due to completely preventable reasons like monthly periods.
In fact, the situation gets worse when girls’ menstruation results in absenteeism as well as school dropout.
Not only that, menstruation also leads to low self-esteem, higher drop-out rates in schools, apart from making girls vulnerable to early marriage.
Ida Steven Muhajiri, a mother of five from Chilomoni Township, says, where possible, girls should not drop out of school due to lack of potable water and sanitary facilities which are one of the major contributing factors to dropouts most of which happens at puberty stage.
“Menstrual hygiene facilities and services keep girls in school where they can reach their full potential but it is hard for a parent to send the girl child to school without such facilities,” says Muhajiri, who has two girls at Chilomoni LEA primary school.
To her, menstrual hygiene facilities are the number one requisite to sending her girl sibling, Jennifer, to school.
Actually, Muhajiri’s perception spectacularly sums up United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) findings in 2013.
Unicef indicates that 1 in 10 African girls miss school during menses, eventually leading to higher school dropout rates.
The institution also indicates that many school-going girls and women teachers in developing countries like Malawi struggle to find appropriate places and facilities in their school to deal with menses.
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.
It is estimated that as of 2008 the country’s schools had a representative ratio of 1 improved latrine for every 115 girls against a population on 15,473 improved latrines in use for female pupils whose enrolment at the time stood at 1,773,369 girls.
This is according to a 2008 Ministry of Education School Water, Sanitation and Hygiene education (Swash) study that covered 5,379 schools out of 5,460 schools representing 98.5 percent.
The statistics despite remaining high, improved in the 2010 report on the status of water, sanitation and hygiene in primary schools in Malawi.
Launched by the then Minister of Education, Science and Technology George Chaponda on Thursday, 18th March 2010, the report shows that 23 percent of schools, on average, had one toilet for every 60 pupils.
Between 61 and 100 pupils in another 14 percent of schools share a toilet and more than 100 pupils share a facility in 26 percent of Malawi schools.
Ironically, this is almost double the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended minimum standards of one facility for every 25 pupils.
About 230 schools, the report also reveals, had no sanitation facilities at all with most pupils resorting to using the bush to relieve themselves.
There are 58 schools in Blantyre alone, according to School Health Coordinator for Blantyre Urban Marjorie Banda and, yet, sanitation remains a threat to pupils’ wellbeing including girls.
“Whenever girls are menstruating they absent themselves from school on the pretext that they are ill. This affects their competitiveness with boys who are mostly in class,” she says.
Like other girls in Blantyre urban, Lenny Bvutula, a standard 8 pupil at Chilomoni LEA School, is self-conscious about any hints of bleeding during her periods.
The teenager from Nthukwa in Chilomoni says she used to face challenges before the introduction of a School Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Education (Swash) project in Peri-urban Blantyre. Her school is one of the project’s beneficiaries.
The school, she says, had one block of 12 toilets split equally between boys and girls from stranded 1 to 8.
“Due to congestion, younger students used to peep at older students while in toilets and boys used to laugh at us and most girls eventually stayed home whenever periods started,” she says.
A 2008 survey on challenges in the education system by Unicef and the Ministry of Education in the country indicates a long term long-term plan aim at support the construction of at least one larger latrine stall in girls’ sanitary facilities in each school.
The plan was initially to equip the latrines with a bucket of water or hand-washing station so that girls can privately wash their hands and any menstrual stains that may be on their clothes.
In addition, Unicef pledged to support government partners in installing doors to latrine cubicles as well as privacy walls at the entrances of latrines so that girls feel more secure inside.
As a complementary measure, Water for People Malawi in collaboration with the Ministry of Education has gone a step further to implement a similar indicative in Blantyre Urban schools.
The Swash project, as it is called has seen the construction of 40 toilet blocks in 20 schools.
Funded by Coca-Cola Replenish Africa Initiative Foundation, the modern toilets have a specialised section for girls such as Bvutula.
The facilities tailor made to meet a girl’s needs in time of menstruation including change and washrooms specific for menstruating adolescent girls to ensure privacy.
A chute within the washrooms is also within the facility and it leads to an attached outside incinerator to ensure safe collection and burning of used pads.
Apart from specialise urinals that have compartments to enhance privacy, there are a taps with running water within the change room for washing after use.
“Girls have an opportunity to use the incinerator where they burn used pads. Boys no longer laugh at us since the toilets provide privacy,” indicates Bvutula.
Learners in the other 22 targeted schools in the project, whose tenure ends in December 2015, are being equipped with good hygienic practices and behaviours.
Apart from installing water taps, the project has also seen the installation of water kiosks in 13 schools for the communities to benefit.
Money generated from the water sales is used for paying water bills as well as paying people employed to clean the toilets.
According to Ida Steven Muhajiri, with as little as K150 she can access potable water for her house hold.
She says she no longer treks to Lumbira River which she claims is now infested with disease-causing organisms and faeces.
“For years, we have been experiencing the effects of faecal pollution, but we had no choice,” she says. “Despite the exposure to water borne diseases we kept on using the water despite significant challenges in managing it. But all that is gone and my siblings and my family are safe from diarrhoea which used to be a concern.”
Chilomoni LEA school management chair, Matthews Kaliza, says apart from having a specialised room for girls, the new toilets also are disability friendly.
“Students with disabilities have clear access to a disability-friendly toilet which means the issue of access to education for all is being archived,” he says.
The school has also culminated in the provision of a water troughs , which has ten taps for boys and another ten for girls.
Nearly 21 years after the introduction of free primary education, the effects of increased enrolment in an education system that was ill-equipped to cope when attendance rates increased have started showing with girl’s menstrual sanitation being one of the major indicators.
Officials from Ministry of Education admit the country’s lack of planning in the education sector has cost the country the opportunity to meet the Millennium Development Goal premised on ensuring that every child completes primary education by 2015 considering that, which enrolment remains high, dropout rates show no signs of abating.
They say girl-child dropout rates have also exacerbated the situation.
Langton Kapachika, one of the teachers at Mkolokoti CCAP primary, probably the largest primary school in southern Africa with an enrolment of close to 8,147 pupils, believes the modern toilets have liberated the girls from sanitary challenges.
“Being the school with the huge enrolment in Southern Africa,” he claimed, “Girls, like wise boys, had to wait for each other’s turn in order to access the toilets. During periods, some girls had to absent themselves from school and that affected their performance in class,” he says.
Just like Chilomoni LEA, Mkolokoti CCAP primary has had 11 toilet blocks constructed for both boys and girls.
School Health Coordinator for Blantyre Urban, Marjorie Banda, believes the toilets and drinking water troughs constructed also part of the project enable learners drink safe water in a hygienic environment.
“Special rooms for girls who are menstruating offer them solid grounds to remain in school. We are no longer getting lame excuses for not coming to school,” she said.
Tackling prevailing girl child risk factors effectively prevents potential hardship according to Unicef.
Brian Mulenga, Sanitation Officer for Water for People says girls sanitation facilities have created a conducive sanitary environment that allows teenage girl-child to prosper in education.
“Through school hygiene promotion activities facilitated by the project, school girls’ self-esteem towards education has been enhanced. Girls are now able to discuss their sanitary needs in schools and advocate for improved sanitation facilities in other schools,” says Mulenga.
Water for people is also rallying the beneficiary schools set up School Sanitation Clubs, to take lead in school hygiene activities at schools and leaner homes.
“The provision of good sanitation must take precedence for all learners. Parents and learners including the girl child yearn for a proper sanitation in schools, apart from the education they get,” indicates Muhajiri.

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