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Keeping Our Young Girls in School

Categories: ALL THE NEWS , Education, Social & Community, Women Empowerment
As South Africa engages the realities of Women’s Month 2015, the celebrations of the struggles of women for liberation and equality mask a painful and

As South Africa engages the realities of Women’s Month 2015, the celebrations of the struggles of women for liberation and equality mask a painful and hidden continuous struggle:  the struggle of the menstruating girl-child.  The Community Chest is tackling this problem head-on by making sure it is addressed and researched. 

School-going female menstruation has been the absent subject in many of the equality and liberation discourses as if it’s a matter to be avoided and the butt-end of the equally distasteful “that time of the month” jokes.  Where this discourse is most hidden is with the girl-child:  the fact that thousands of girls in school cannot afford sanitary pads means that during menstruation many simply skip school - often as many as 30 days of school per year – all because of a natural bodily function called menstruation. 

And it’s this aspect of their womanhood that society punishes them for - they will be deemed to be absent without reason from school, as often they will not have a doctor’s certificate. How does a 14 year old girl explain to a teacher she can’t afford sanitary pads and had to stay home?

The knock-on effects are tragic - they miss out on education and perform poorly or even drop out of school.  Unwanted or early pregnancy is often the next desperate attempt to give cling to a sense of meaning or to keep themselves alive with the grants that then become available - and the vicious cycle of poverty continues.

A United Nations (UNESCO) study estimates that one in ten African girls miss school during their menstrual cycle.  As stated, this contributes to a higher school drop-out rate. Studies done in Uganda and Ghana show that girls missed up to five days a month due to inadequate sanitation facilities, the lack of sanitary products, as well as physical discomfort due to menstruation. Further research in Ghana revealed that providing free sanitary packs increased school attendance substantially especially when linked to a puberty and menstrual hygiene education programme.

In the Western Cape the figures are unclear – but anecdotal evidence shows that menstruating girls in school could be losing as many as 3 days a month in very poor communities.  Other anecdotal evidence shows that girls wear a “not too badly soiled” sanitary pad for more than one day.  This dehumanising process impacts on the mental preparedness and well-being of the girl-child as she struggles to cope with educating herself in a “menstrually”- unfriendly environment.

Womanhood should not be about shame for the menstruating girl-child.  It should be about a right to have access to adequate health care which the Constitution guarantees. Therefore the Community Chest Western Cape has partnered with Johnson and Johnson to help secure the academic future of more than 6 000 female learners in Cape Town.

This new Community Chest project, to be launched this month (August 2015) to celebrate Women’s Month, will ensure that these girls will never again have to face the prospect of skipping school and destroying their futures for R15 per month – the average cost of a pack of sanitary pads.  Over the next 12 months Community Chest will distribute 6 000 hygiene packs every school quarter to girls at 12 of the most affected schools across the Western Cape.

This new Community Chest initiative recognises the work being done by a  number of organisations who have introduced programmes to help these girls, and through growing this initiative in partnership with other service providers we will work to ensure that  this issue is no longer a destabilising factor in keeping girls on the learning track.
Community Chest will also conduct the research section of the project. We developed a survey to contextualise the problem statement for the female learners in Cape Town. Lifeline/Childline will implement the survey and collect the data during their workshops, which we will then analyse and publish for use by other NGO/corporate entities.

The education of women—full and equal education—is one of our greatest needs globally. It's worrying to see how men continue to dominate the knowledge space, yet in some very obvious cases lack intelligence to engage, while boys get preferential treatment in access to education.  This is another step towards levelling the educational field between boys and girls at school level.  It’s time to remove the stigma around menstruation for the girl-child and enable her to celebrate her womanhood boldly.  This is a matter which can no longer be ignored. 

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