NOMSA NKANA, Lusaka
MENSTRUAL hygiene management (MHM) is defined by UNICEF as â€œWomen and adolescent girls using clean menstrual management material to absorb or collect menstrual blood, which can be changed in privacy as often as necessary for the duration of the menstruation period, using soap and water and having access to facilities to dispose of used menstrual management materialsâ€.
Therefore, MHM is about things that can be done to help the girl child have an enabling menstrual hygiene management environment in their schools.
It means having a girl completely supported at school with facilities that can enable her go in the classroom even when they are menstruating.
Ministry of Gender and Child Development permanent secretary Daisy Ngâ€™ambi said in Zambia, there are very few programmes which are focused on dissemination of proper information and lifting of taboos around menstruation and MHM.
She said in recent years, however, a number of organisations working in water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes in schools have developed a keen interest in MHM in schools.
The focusing of the programmes is keeping the girls in school, and improving performance and learning outcomes.
In addition to inadequate information and persisting taboos, women and girls capacity to manage their periods is also affected by other factors, which includes limited access to affordable and hygienic sanitary materials and disposal options.
This leaves many to manage periods in an ineffective, uncomfortable and unhygienic manner.
In many rural areas, rags, particularly from old chitenge cloths are used to manage the menstrual flow.
In an environment where menstruation is a taboo and secretive, the handling of these cloths may lead to transmission of infections.
Why MHM at schools?
UNICEF WASH specialist Charity Sikamo said MHM is one of the main strategies for keeping girls in school and increasing the numbers of educated girls and women in our country.
Ms Sikamo said lack of MHM is a big reason why girls stay away from school. Girls lose up to three-five days per month of school, losing track of class work and eventually dropping out.
â€œProper MHM has economic and educational impacts for both girls and their subsequent families. An educated woman contributes significantly to her familyâ€™s health and to the development of the nation,â€ she said.
Among others, one of the challenges of MHM is that most of the time, it is difficult for children to find sanitary towels, especially in the rural areas.
Ms Sikamo said even in urban areas, those coming from not-so-well-to-do homes have problems affording sanitary towels.
â€œAt Lusaka Girls, some of the pupils said they get money for pads from their boyfriends which is sad,â€ she said.
She said taboos where children are told not to talk to male teachers make it difficult for the girl-child to relate when faced with MHM challenges.
Other challenges are insufficient access to safe and private toilets, and lack of clean water and soap for washing hands after a change of pads.
Some girls fear being stigmatised by boys if they soil their uniforms.
And according to Ms Sikamo, if boys also receive information about menstruation, they will not laugh at the girls but support them.
Therefore, her organisation and co-operating partners have endeavoured to give children correct information about menstruation and how they should look after themselves when menstruating.
However, the most important issue about MHM is how the girls can stay in school when they are menstruating.
When they start menstruating, most girls are told to drop out of school as early as grade five.
Ms Sikamo said lack of MHM is the big reason why girls stay home when they become of age.
She said others stop going to school at least for the days they are menstruating, making them lose out on the hours they will spend at school.
What we are doing?
To this end, UNICEF in partnership with the Ministry of Education is raising awareness in communities on MHM.
â€œI found a support group in Milenge where they said if we discover a girl has not gone to school, we follow them up and encourage the child to go to school,â€ Ms Sikamo said.
Organisations like Yash Pharmaceuticals have come on board to produce pads and to teach girls how to use re-usable sanitary towels.
Another organisation Schools Promoting Learning Achievement through Sanitation and Hygiene (SPLASH) is addressing MHM challenges.
This is being done through a comprehensive WASH programme in schools with a strong MHM component creating an environment for girls that is conducive to learning while ensuring adequate water, sanitation facilities, and hygiene products, among others.
In schools without MHM facilities, adolescent girls face challenges including fear of staining their skirts, bullying and teasing from boys, and a sense of shame and fear of people finding out they are on their menses.
SPLASH operates under the principle that access to MHM increases a girlâ€™s confidence, sense of value and self-worth.
According to UNICEF, changes at the school level can create a more enabling environment for female students such as integration of menstrual education in school curricular, design of girl friendly latrines and pain relief medication, among others.
NOMSA NKANA, Lusaka