Kigali — Lack of access to sanitary napkins and tampons during menstruation has long been a hindrance for girls attending school in Rwanda. But increasing awareness about the issue looks to pressure schools and the state to address it.
During menstruation, most poor women use cloth rags to absorb the blood flow. These emit bad odours and leak easily. For girls sitting in class all day without access to clean water to wash themselves and the rags, this leads to extreme discomfort and embarrassment.
Schoolgirls and female teachers often simply do not attend school during their periods rather than go through this, resulting in a 10-20 per cent absenteeism rate from school. Girls consequently fall behind in their studies.
Phinah Mugwaneza from Kayonza, a rural district in the Eastern Province, thinks about skipping school every time she menstruates. She recently escaped from school to her parents in Remera, Gasabo district.
Her periods had started. She told her teachers and friends that she had malaria. Her parents did not know about the matter. The hard-working, resolute 16-year-old attends a secondary school that has neither sanitary towels nor running water.
"It is hell each time we have our periods," Mugwaneza says wearily.
Schools add towels to tuition
About 250 students at Mugwaneza's school have no sanitary pads because the administration does not buy them, and the girls cannot afford them for themselves.
They have only two pit-latrines to share. There is no tap water with which to wash their hands after using the toilet, let alone to clean the blood.
Mugwaneza says she and other adolescent girls find these poor sanitation conditions excruciatingly awkward during their periods.
"It's so difficult to concentrate in class when you know there is no water for cleaning ourselves at break time or sanitary pads to use. I usually prefer staying home every time my menses (sic) come," she says cagily. She says many girls in her school leave as soon as their period starts. It becomes a nightmare to them.
"We cannot concentrate and fear to tell our teachers. It would be better for the school stocked sanitary pads for the girls, even if it means increasing tuition fees," Mugwaneza said last week. She says the worst days are during examination because it is hard to miss school.
"What you do is to kneel down and pray to God it does not come in the middle of an exam."
However, Phinah's problems concerning water are not confined to the school environment. Her village in Umutara has no access to safe clean water either. No one in her family has ever used a pad or tampon before.
Taboo to discuss menstruation
Talking about menstruation remains a sensitive issue for some. Many girls in Rwanda are still unaware even of the existence of menstruation until they have their first period.
A mother in Kimironko, when told it would be better to discuss menstruation with her daughters in advance of and during puberty, reacted in surprise and embarrassment. Support from fathers in this regard is virtually non-existent.
Most men expect their wives to look after their daughters. According to research, results shows that even among couples, menstruation issues has never been a point of discussion.
Schools can play an important role in enabling open discussions in which children feel free to talk about issues such as menstruation and reproductive health and educating on personal hygiene for adolescent girls.
The average woman menstruates once every four weeks for three to five days. This means that each year, a girl has her cycle thirteen times. Using the average of four days per period, most girls bleed 52 days every year - almost two months cumulatively, or 14 percent of the year.
For a student, this is a lot of school to miss. It calls for government intervention or proactive support from school administrators. Adolescents are forced to bear the inconvenience and embarrassment of no water or other means to maintain their hygiene during menstruation.
An official from the Ministry of Education (MINEDUC), who spoke on condition of anonymity on Monday, admitted that lack of sanitary pads could indeed cause dropouts from school, further hindering young women's performance.
Rose Mbabazi, a student at Ndera Secondary School, says that most female students miss on average, nine days of school each term because of their periods.
"We believe the MINEDUC should work hand in hand with schools to solve this problem," she said.
For most families, affording pads or tampons is out of the question. The retail price of high quality sanitary pads - ultra thin with wings - is about Frw2, 500 per pack.
But some schools cannot even afford to provide meals to students, much less clean water and sanitary towels. Whether the MINEDUC can find a way to meet the needs of Rwanda's young women remains to be seen.
And in the meantime, students like Phinah and Rose are missing school and struggling to make do without.