Girls’ education and menstrual hygiene challenges in Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, the absence of sanitary products or girls' toilets in schools may result in girls missing school during their menstrual period. With support from civil society, some programs are helping, improving girls' school attendance and performance, but much more needs to be done.

May 27, 2021 by Enet Tini
5 minutes read
A schoolgirl sitting in her classroom. Murape Primary School, Zimbabwe. Credit: GPE/Carine Durand
A schoolgirl sitting in her classroom. Murape Primary School, Zimbabwe
Credit: Credit: GPE/Carine Durand

This blog is part of a collaboration between the Forum of African Women Educationalists (FAWE) and the Global Partnership for Education.

For too many girls in Zimbabwe, education has been compromised by challenges posed by lack of access to proper menstrual hygiene, care and management. If menstrual hygiene and care is not properly handled, more girls will continue to lose out on education.

Cultural and religious taboos and limiting social norms makes it challenging to teach and talk about menstrual health. A report by Plan International states that males do not view sanitary products as essential items.

Further, cultural taboos that were associated with a women menstruating have increased. A case in point is girls being denied the opportunity to cook while menstruating as it is wrong culturally. Menstrual health challenges have become a major contributor to poor learning performance and poor grades and even to girls dropping out of school.

Period challenges make girls miss out on schooling

These challenges faced by female learners not only negatively impact their participation and performance in school, but also take away their dignity, self-confidence and self-esteem.

Absence of proper sanitary products may result in girls missing school during their menstrual period. The major reason is that they fear leakage and messing up, which in turn attracts teasing from other learners. Menstruating girls are continuously teased by other learners including male students and some male educators as well. In order to avoid this, girls may opt to miss school during their period.

Menstrual hygiene requires clean and proper toilet facilities and appropriate methods of disposing of used sanitary pads, and availability of water and soap within the facility. Unfortunately, these facilities are hard to come by in Zimbabwean public schools. The lockdown brought about by Covid-19 has also escalated the situation.

Running water is a major challenge. Absence of proper water and sanitation facilities affects girls’ confidence to freely participate in class or any other school activities during their periods.

Many girls feel pain during the first 3 days of their period. They may feel distracted, nauseated and may not be able to concentrate. Some girls may sleep in class and some will excuse themselves to visit the bathroom more frequently, losing precious learning time in the process. Educators are not able to assist girls out of these problems.

Promising but insufficient programs to provide menstrual hygiene products

In Zimbabwe there has been a significant mobilization by civil society organizations on access to sanitary products in a bid to curb absenteeism of girls from school during their periods.

The government has also attempted to establish programs to provide disposable sanitary pads to female learners. While this is a noble move, the reality is that menstrual management continues to be quite challenging.

Even though some schools receive disposable pads, not all learners are reached and the sustainability of the supply is a major issue. The supplies are limited hence distribution is not equitable. In some schools, learners are required to personally request pads from the staff room or the school director’s office, which is rather embarrassing. Because of that, girls may prefer to sneak out of school or stay home, missing out lessons.

In other schools, the pads are available for emergency purposes only or for a few selected vulnerable learners. The responsible teacher may choose to send the concerned girl home to freshen up since the school will not be in a position to provide enough pads for all the girls.

Many girls get sanitary pads from parents and family members who may fail to provide enough or at a time convenient for the girls. Sometimes the girls have to buy them for themselves. They may rely on boyfriends if they cannot afford them, hence exposing themselves to the risk of sexual abuse, which may result in unexpected and unwanted pregnancies. Eventually, their schooling is disrupted, and they end up dropping out.

Need to expand menstrual health education

There is also limited access to information on sexual reproductive health rights (SRHR) and comprehensive sexuality education. There are significant gaps in the quality and consistency of the delivery of menstrual health education, so girls are not even sure of how they are supposed to handle and manage their periods.

Male educators avoid the topic and have expressed their discomfort in teaching menstrual health education. This instruction is given to girls separately during Guidance and Counselling sessions that are not open to male learners’ participation. Hence there is limited support from male counterparts, and they may continue to harass girls.

Culture and religion also pose a barrier to menstrual health education since such education is not given in the home. Girls rely on friends and peers for information, which may be distorted. There is therefore a need for accurate, age appropriate and quality sexuality education within schools.

We know that there is a complex interaction between menstrual challenges experienced by female learners, poor facilities in the school environment, and school participation, attendance and performance.

But the solutions are clear and simple. We need:

  • Sustainable provision of sanitary products
  • Safe, clean and convenient school sanitation facilities with a sustainable disposal system
  • Quality and comprehensive SRHR teaching for learners in the school curriculum.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many girls in Zimbabwe were negatively affected. It is estimated that 4,959 school girls fell pregnant while a further 1,774 were forced into marriages.

What is even more shocking is that the cases were recorded from just January to February 5, 2021. There is therefore a great need to consider the solutions above for better gender-responsive learning.

This shouldn’t be too much to ask to ensure that girls are able to participate in education on an equal footing as boys.

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Interested in learning more of how you provide these. I am working with young girls in underprivileged communities in my country and wish to setup smallscale sanitary pads manufacturing plants in some communities for ease of accessibility and affordable to them

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