Periods, births keep girls in East Africa out of school

By Andrew Wasike and James Tasamba

NAIROBI, Kenya / KIGALI, Rwanda (AA) – As the world marks the International Day of the Girl Child on Oct. 11, Kenyan girls are still struggling to stay in school due to menstruation.

Kenya is a country where the government has set up centers that distribute free condoms to promote safe sex, but it is in the same country that significant barriers to quality menstrual hygiene management products persist.

Across Kenya, obtaining sanitary pads is a challenge for girls and young women as the government has no nationwide program in place to provide them for free. The repercussions are serious. Girls are committing suicide, staying out of school or turning to sex to get money to buy them.

Young girls at Mathare School in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, say they go through humiliation and shame every month when they have their periods.

At Hope Secondary School in Mathare, a low-income area in Nairobi, 14-year-old Rose spoke of the shame and tears whenever she had her period.

“When you stand up in class, you can hear people laughing at you. Shortly, you find out they are laughing because of a period accident,” she said.

In the past month alone, three girls in Kenya have taken their lives after being shamed for having such accidents.

The latest case is a 14-year-old girl who committed suicide after being humiliated by her teacher for having her period in class. This triggered protests by female parliamentarians and Kenyans from all walks of life, leading to a nationwide conversation on period shaming and access to menstrual products.

A study conducted by consulting firm FSG titled ‘Menstrual Health Landscape in Kenya’ noted that many girls face numerous challenges, with 65% of women and girls in the country unable to afford sanitary pads — a major challenge driving young girls to exchange sex for pads.

“We are forced to engage in sexual relations with young men working in farms, people’s husbands. They all approach us,” said Lucy, who is 15.

“When the motorbike riders help you to get sanitary pads, they say that they also want your help. They don’t want money. All they want is sex. You become considerate and say ‘the motorbike rider really helped me. Let me just have sex with him.’ And in our area, people don’t like having protected sex.”

FSG says that jarring statistics have signaled that menstruation is tied to more fundamental risks and issues of gender inequity. Studies say two out of three girls in rural Kenya receive pads from sexual partners, and one in four girls do not associate menstruation with pregnancy.

The report warns that the lack of information means that some of the girls may be unable to negotiate safe sex practices, thereby increasing their risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV or experiencing an unwanted pregnancy.

Mary Makokha, the founder of the Rural Education and Economic Enhancement Programme (REEP), an NGO spearheading the fight against HIV/AIDS in western Kenya, said all of this is happening to the Kenyan girl child due to the government’s and parents’ ignorance.

“It is where we have placed the girl child and where we have placed the woman in this community; kind of they are regarded like they are so low and their needs are not essential,” she said.

“When this girl gets pregnant, the same parent who sent her out to go and look for sanitary pads and other basic needs is the same one who will chase her away from home. So you get a girl that has gone to get married even as a second or third wife. It is survival.”

The extremely high cost of sanitary pads is keeping young girls out of school. Kenya’s Ministry of Education has warned that a girl who misses four days of school each month loses 39 days in an academic year.

-Teenage births

In Rwanda, the day was marked in the capital Kigali under the theme “I prepare my future by protecting myself from getting pregnant prematurely.”

Speaking at the event, Rwandan Minister of Gender and Family Promotion Soline Nyirahabimana explained that the theme was chosen to reflect and take a bold stand to end an outstanding constraint for girls today, which is teenage pregnancy.

Calling for collective responsibility to protect girls from teenage pregnancies, the minister mentioned that Rwanda has made remarkable progress in addressing some of the challenges facing girls.

Gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment are commitments that are strongly entrenched in the government’s political will, legal, policy and institutional frameworks that support equal opportunities for men and women and girls and boys, she said.

Nyirahabimana said she believes if girls are effectively supported at an early age during their adolescent years, they have the potential to change the world both as the empowered girls of today and as tomorrow’s workers, entrepreneurs, mentors, managers, renowned artists and leaders.