Schoolgirls deserve to menstruate in dignity

December 23, 2021

By Mercy Mwongeli Ndunda, research intern

Menstrual health management products come as a luxury to many schoolgirls, especially in developing countries. In Kenya, for example, 65% of women and girls had no access to sanitary towels as of 2017. To enable young girls to menstruate in dignity, efforts have been made to increase access to these products for the most vulnerable. For instance, Kenya rolled out a free sanitary towel program to keep girls in school. UNFPA has also championed the distribution of dignity kits and educates girls on making reusable pads and menstrual cups.

Schools have played a key role as distribution centers for menstrual health management products in Kenya. The State Department for Gender Affairs procured sanitary pads for over 3.7 million girls in public primary and secondary schools. However, this supply was disrupted with the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent school closure. Daisy* says she could not access government pads in Nairobi’s Korogocho slums when schools were closed. Luckily for her, a community-based organization came to her rescue, and 600 other young girls.

In Zambia , it was reported that menstrual health management was hitting rock bottom due to economic strains, especially for vulnerable girls in the rural areas who turned to using old clothes. A recent study by the Population Council in Nairobi’s urban slums unveiled that one-third of women and girls could not afford sanitary pads due to COVID-19 economic shocks. In such dire situations, girls are likely to resort to substandard materials which compromise their hygiene, comfort and risk their health.

Girls in low and middle-income countries suffer period shame due to lack of adequate menstrual health management resources. Some have been pushed to engage in transactional sex to afford sanitary products to escape the ‘shame.’ Consequently, this has exposed them to the risk of sexual violence, sexually transmitted infections, child abuse and unintended pregnancy.

To increase access and affordability of sanitary products, African countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritania, Rwanda, South Africa and Tanzania, exempted these products from tax. In 2019, South Africa set aside a budget of R2.8 billion to make safe toilets in 2,400 schools. In 2020, Scotland made headlines as the first country in the world to pronounce menstrual health management products free. All these are laudable strides that other countries can learn from.

There is a need to birth a long-term strategy to ensure an unlimited supply of safe menstrual health management products. Every schoolgirl deserves to be able to manage their periods with dignity. Periods do not stop. They should not stop any girl from achieving their academic goals either!