KAPALA CHISUNKA, Lusaka
GOVERNMENT recently announced that in 2017, it will start the distribution of free sanitary towels to girls in rural and peri-rural areas to increase and retain attendance of girls in schools.
This is because most girls fail to go to school due to lack of or proper sanitary towels. The move has been welcomed by many stakeholders although some have raised concerns on the implementation and sustainability of the project.
Issues pertaining to reproductive and sexual health have in most cases been treated as taboo and usually shunned upon. This is more so when it comes to menstruation for girls in school.
For many years, menstruation health, personal hygiene and access to sanitary towels for girls have been left to grandmothers and aunties to discuss and groom when the girls hit puberty.
But with the breakdown of strong extended family systems, many girls are left to learn about how to take care of themselves during menstruation and personal grooming from their peers.
This situation is worse for girls in the rural areas as being on their periods for them means absconding from school due to lack of access to proper sanitary towels and in some cases proper sanitary facilities that have no running water.
This translates into the majority of school going girls from the rural areas, every month missing classes at least five days during their menstrual period.
However, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel for many girls next year because government will start the distribution of free sanitary towels to increase and retain their class attendance.
HOW MUCH HAS BEEN SET ASIDE FOR THE DISTRIBUTION?
This development was announced by the Minister of Finance Felix Mutati during the 2017 national budget presentation. And stakeholders involved in the sexual and reproductive health have commended government for the development.
Zambia National Womenâ€™s Lobby (ZNWL) chairperson Beauty Katebe said her organisation deals with girls in rural areas and she is optimistic that the programme will go a long way in assisting them.
Mrs Katebe said in an interview that interactions with the girls has shown that majority of them, especially those who have just hit puberty opt to shun classes because they are afraid of spoiling their uniforms due to lack of proper sanitary towels.
â€œMost girls in rural areas do not use proper disposal sanitary towels because they do not have money. So, their only option is using pieces of cloths. Unfortunately, these are not secure and they end up spoiling their uniforms,â€ she said.
To avoid the embarrassing situation from occurring, Mrs Katebe said girls prefer to abscond from school until their period has ended and in an event that had spoiled their uniforms, girls stay away from school longer because of shame.
She said the distribution of sanitary towels will improve the attendance of girls in school as they will have one less thing to worry about monthly.
However, Mrs Katebe was quick to note that the concern of ZNWL was how the programme would be implemented to ensure that the intended girls benefited from the project.
â€œThere is need to put in a monitoring tool to ensure that only the intended beneficiaries of the free sanitary towels profit from this project because otherwise it would not have served its purpose,â€ Mrs Katebe said.
And Copper Rose Zambia (CRZ) also hailed Government for its decision to provide free sanitary towels to girls in rural and peri-urban schools starting 2017.
CRZ co-founder Natasha Salifyanji Kaoma said in an interview that development demonstrates Governmentâ€™s resolve in ensuring that girls are not left out in the education agenda and have access to education just like the boy child.
CRZ is a non-governmental organisation that deals with matters of sexual, reproductive and menstrual health. The objective of the organisation is to empower girls and young women so they can be valued as much as the country values copper in this country.
CRZ has been in working on fightissues of sexual and reproductive health and menstrual health for two years. CRZ also runs a campaign called Candid Pride where they promote menstrual hygiene and awareness in schools.
The organisation managed to distribute 4,000 hygiene kits which include pads and other hygienic supplies. They have also managed to reach over 6, 000 girls this year alone.
Ms Kaoma said her organisation has since inception visited more than 10 schools in five districts in Zambia, educating young people about their health, how to take care of themselves while menstruating as well as explaining menstruation to young girls.
â€œUnlike in the olden days where grandparents or aunties were expected to talk about such issues with them when they reach puberty, young people no longer have that opportunity anymore. They are left to learn about it from their peers,â€ she said.
She said CRZ acts as â€œbig sisterâ€ to the girls while educating the young girls on the issues of hygiene and personal grooming during menstruation.
Ms Kaoma said the decision by government to distribute sanitary towels will help girls remain in school and access education on a continuous basis.
â€œMajority of girls in rural areas miss school every month for five days when they are menstruating due to lack of proper sanitary towels. And in some cases, it is not just about the pads, it is also about toilet facilities at the schools.
Some schools do not have proper toilets and the ones with toilets are not fully functional which comes back to absenteeism because girls need to have access to proper sanitary facilities while they are menstruating and if they cannot have that at school, they opt to stay away,â€ she said.
However, Ms Kaoma expressed concern over the sustainability of the project and further suggesting that government distribute re-usable sanitary towels in the project because they last longer and are safer for the environment.
â€œBut if Government opts for disposable pads, they should also think about disposal because that will create a problem on the environment. There is also the need for intensified education and sensitisation on the use of sanitary towels because most girls have never used disposable pads before,â€ she said.
Ms Kaoma said if the project is to be sustainable, it needs to be accompanied with a lot of education and that Government should consider engaging stakeholders involved in reproductive and sexual health such as CRZ to take up the role of educating the girls on menstruation health and personal grooming.
â€œGovernment needs to think about procurement of the pads because they are very few companies currently producing sanitary towels locally. Government should consider giving a tax waiver for companies that will be engaged to produce the pads for distribution to the schools to reduce cost,â€ she said.
Ms Kaoma said although it is commendable that Government will start with girls in the rural and urban areas, they should not forget about girls in the urban areas because they are some who cannot afford to buy sanitary towels.
â€œGovernment must not forget about girls even in this programme because there are some who cannot afford to buy proper disposal sanitary towels. So, Government can target those from vulnerable homes and communities so they are not left out,â€ she said.
Ms Kaoma said it is about time people normalised the subject of menstruation and hygiene and deliberately started such conversations. She said shunning discussing menstruation health will continue disadvantaging the young girls and accessibility to education.
â€œLet us learn to discuss menstruation health openly, there is nothing to be ashamed of and we must not let our girls feel ashamed or embarrassed about it because it is a normal process. This campaign must therefore involve all stakeholders if it has to be successful, including encompassing men who are usually made to feel like they are doing something wrong by joining the campaign,â€ she said.
KAPALA CHISUNKA, Lusaka