Menstrual cycle: Girls lose 528 academic days

Wendy Muperi

RHODA Furudzai, 14* has to bear the searing pain and torture which accompanies her menses so discreetly that the three men in her life barely know it is that time of the month again.
Rhoda’s mother imparted the generation’s old wisdom that a woman of quality should never let men know that she is having her cycle.

Menstrual hygiene is a subject that is taboo, not just in Rhoda’s family but in the majority of Zimbabwe’s households.
Thousands of girls find their monthly cycle a nightmare instead of a blessing. They have to endure the discomfort of using rags as sanitary wear barely makes it on their families budgets because of traditional perceptions surrounding menstrual hygiene bundled with economic hardships.

Selling for at least a $1 per pack for the most affordable brands, most girls, on their own, cannot afford at least two packs of disposable pads every month.

“It stresses me every time. At school, even without proper sanitary wear, nobody sympathises when you mess-up your skirt.
“Staying at home during my cycle is the safest thing I can do to avoid embarrassment,” Furudzai said.

The 14-year-old’s predicament is just a tip of the iceberg as many girls in both rural and urban areas face the same challenges.

Female parliamentarians have been lobbying for government interventions on the issue of sanitary wear and menstrual hygiene amid revelations that girls have resorted to using rags, leaves, dung and grass during their menstrual cycles. This unfortunate situation leaves them at risk of contracting infections.
Research has shown that 1 in every 10 African girls does not attend classes when experiencing their cycle.

According to SNV (Netherlands Development Organisation), African girls can lose up to 528 academic days of their formative education.

National Programme of Action for Children manager in the Health ministry, Alice Sasa, said poverty and cultural perceptions on menstrual health have left the country girls struggling to cope with their cycles.

“In a socio-economically constrained environment girls in college can’t afford sanitary wear at the same time they can’t walk around college in cow dung. They end up engaging in unprotected sex to buy sanitary wear,” Sasa said.
Sasa added that there is need for investment in the area of menstrual hygiene as it is a central development component which will help the country attain the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

“Social exclusion is a reality. If a girl loses between five to 10 days every month, it means a lot of productive time is lost in that girl’s life, her family and the community,” said Sasa recently addressing a menstrual hygiene workshop in Harare.
Apart from discomfort, bad odour and exposing women to infection, wearing a pad for longer than recommended may result in ulceration or infection, health experts say.

Jenni Wall, a local business woman has introduced reusable pads —a product she believes may bring a significant difference in girl’s lives and the environment.

“I could see girls in Zimbabwe were in trouble and wanted to give them an affordable option. “Some people wear disposable pads for far too many hours because they are reluctant to literally throw away their money. If a woman cannot afford $5, she can buy one pad at a time,” said Wall.

But with manufacturers recommending the reusable pads be thoroughly washed with clean cold water and dried in sunlight to kill bacteria— medical experts have expressed reservations —in a country were water supply is erratic.

“Now with the incessant water problems we have in Harare and many other areas, are we  solving one problem by creating another? We are saying we want to protect our girls from infections but how safe is this reusable pad if it’s not properly washed because of lack of water or soap?” queried general practitioner Peter Mataruse.

Notwithstanding the care concerns associated with reusable pads, chairperson for the Parliamentary portfolio committee on Health, Ruth Labode, said reusable pads remain a positive development.

“You can’t tell me these girls are not bathing? Whatever the little water they are using to bath they will use to wash the pads,” said Labode.

“This girl who has been using a rag, this is a girl whose rights to health, education, dignity, association has been taken away — so for us as parliamentarians it is a plus until we get something better.”

Apart from the obvious benefits to the girls, Environmental Management Agency education and publicity manager Steady Kangata said reusable pads are critical in reducing waste loads on the environment.

“Instead of throwing away 20 pads a month, the same woman will now be throwing away 5 pads a year, for us that is a plus.
“Anything that reduces the waste load on the environment is a step in the right direction and deserves a thumbs-up,” said Kangata.

Girl child rights activist and director of Tag a Life, Nyaradzo Mashayamombe, said society should strive to demystify menstrual hygiene.

“The time has come for us to break the silence.
“There is nothing taboo about menstruation so let us work together as men and women, to improve the lives of our girls, save our girls, families and country from complications and losses arising from ignorance,” Mashayamombe said.

Zimbabwe’s supreme law provides for the right to health, education, dignity and freedom of expression but women rights activists feel all these rights cannot be fully enjoyed without proper sanitary wear.

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