In Zambia, a Costly Choice Between Managing Menstruation and Missing School

In Zambia, girls often miss school because of difficulty managing menstrual periods without sanitary supplies and facilities. Girls are still waiting for the government to follow through on a 2016 promise to address the problem with free sanitary pads.

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In Zambia, a Costly Choice Between Managing Menstruation and Missing School

Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia

Mercy Banda (left), Angela Daka (middle), and Misozi Mwale study away from their school in Rufunsa, Lusaka, Zambia. The girls say they can’t afford sanitary pads, so they use rags when they are menstruating.

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LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Angela Daka, 16, a grade-seven student at Kankumba primary school in rural Rufunsa, an impoverished area about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Zambia’s capital, has never used a sanitary pad before.

Since Daka began menstruating three years ago, she uses rags and always misses class when her menses are heavy for fear of staining her clothes, she says.

Daka’s situation is not unusual. With poverty as high as 78 percent in rural Zambia, girls there cannot afford sanitary pads, which cost about $1 per packet of 10 pads.

Noting the challenge, Minister of Finance Felix Mutati announced during his budget speech to Parliament in 2016 that the government would begin free distribution of sanitary pads to rural and peri-urban schools in 2017. Halfway through the financial year, however, nothing has materialized.

Ministry of General Education officials say that money for the free sanitary pads could soon be released, and the government also seeks to work with private partners in providing menstrual hygiene management in schools.

Because most girls lack supplies to safely and hygienically manage menstruation while at school, girls’ school attendance becomes less consistent after fifth grade, according to a report on Zambia by UNICEF, the U.N. child advocacy agency.

Money is there. We are just waiting for it to be released. But I can’t state how soon. I can’t also state how frequent the distribution will be done. That will be sorted once the money is released.

Apart from sanitary supplies, insufficient water and sanitation facilities in schools are also a key factor contributing to adolescent girls dropping out of schools. Most girls find it difficult to manage their menstruation in environments without water and convenient sanitation facilities, such as washrooms and sanitary disposal points, according to a 2008 report of the Ministry of General Education’s Education Management Information Systems.

The report estimates that only 29 percent of schools in Zambia met the World Health Organization’s recommended pupil/toilet ratio of 25 boys per toilet, while only 9 percent met the recommended ratio of 20 girls per toilet.

The report also noted that nearly 1 million pupils in 1,300 schools use water from contaminated sources or walk a significant distance to fetch water from safe sources.

Despite the announcement of free sanitary pads by the finance minister, no money was allocated for the undertaking in the 2017 revenue and expenditure book, locally known as the yellow book.

Ministry of Finance public relations officer Chileshe Kandeta referred all queries to the Ministry of General Education on how much was allocated and why the 2017 revenue and expenditure book did not have the figures.

Bonaventure Mutale, the spokesman of the Ministry of General Education, explains that the allocation was missing from the revenue and expenditure book because the distribution of the sanitary pads was a policy statement that was made after the 2017 budget had already been concluded.

Mutale says the government has set aside 1.8 million kwacha (about $198,000) for the program and that the funds will soon be released to the Ministry of General Education.

“Money is there,” he says. “We are just waiting for it to be released. But I can’t state how soon. I can’t also state how frequent the distribution will be done. That will be sorted once the money is released.”

Gina Chiwela, executive director of People’s Action Forum, a nongovernmental organization that trains girls in rural schools to make reusable pads, says schools should not leave menstrual hygiene management to the government alone, as it may take time for it to implement the policy.

“Policy announcements take time to be implemented and every time that we waste, a girl is dropping out of school because of menstrual issues. Schools don’t need to leave it to the government. They need to help girls with the available resources,” she says.

Mutale says programs like WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) and SPLASH (Schools Promoting Learning Achievement through Sanitation and Hygiene), both funded by USAID, are helping with sanitation in schools and do prioritize girls’ menstruation issues, too.

However, Mutale says, the ministry is also seeking to partner with private entities to consolidate government efforts to provide sanitary pads to girls.

“Menstrual hygiene is top on the agenda for the Ministry of General Education because we prioritize girls’ education. That is why we are doing everything possible to ensure the girl child remains in school and we are looking to work with any private partners in ensuring that our girls are in school during that difficult time of menstruation,” he says.

Menstrual hygiene management problems are not limited to girls in Zambia. UNESCO says the cost of sanitary pads is a problem throughout the continent and estimates that 1 in 10 girls in Africa misses school during their menses and eventually drops out.

According to statistics from SNV, a Netherlands development organization,  72 percent of girls in Zimbabwe are reported to have never used sanitary pads because of their expense.

In Kenya, adolescent girls miss approximately 3.5 million school days per month because they can’t afford to purchase sanitary pads.

For Daka and many of her peers in rural schools, using sanitary pads is a far-fetched dream, at least until free distribution for rural girls begins.

Prudence Phiri, GPJ, translated some interviews from Nyanja.