The East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) has passed a resolution urging partner states to waive taxes on sanitary pads in the region to increase their availability and affordability for young girls.
The resolution was passed Wednesday as the MPs resumed business in Arusha, Tanzania. The move is expected to keep girls in school and to ensure their well-being, enhanced dignity and respect of rights.
The motion moved by Rwanda's representative to the bloc parliament, Dr Odette Nyiramilimo, who said poor menstrual hygiene across the bloc countries is an insufficiently acknowledged issue.
Dr Nyiramilimo also said girls from poor families often have no access to the sanitary products. "This leads to social trauma and distress especially when occasioned by wearing poor protective clothing during the menses, a move contributing to gender disparities in schools," Dr Nyiramilimo said.
The resolution, which received overwhelming support from lawmakers, urged governments and the private sector to consider making school sanitation facilities more user-friendly and to ensure such cubicles have locks.
It further wants partner states to introduce reproductive health curriculum in schools and to avail sanitary pads and painkillers in learning centres. The resolution lauds the governments of Tanzania and Kenya for abolishing tax on the sanitary pads.
Like elsewhere in the region, some school girls in Rwanda miss school when in their menstruation period because they cannot afford sanitary pads. The cheapest sanitary pad costs Rwf500.
At least 20 per cent of schoolgirls in the country, particularly in rural areas, miss school, up to 50 days per year, because sanitary pads are expensive, according to World Bank statistics.
Solange Kabanyana, a mother of four primary school children, including a primary five girl, in Gikondo, Kigali, welcomed EALA's move, saying if adhered to, many young girls will benefit.
Kabanyana said: "The cheapest sanitary pad is Rwf500, but it's not suitable for every girl because some are allergic to this type yet it is the one slightly affordable. If pads were free, it would increase attendance for sure. I haven't done any research but what I know is that some girls can be traumatised into quitting school because of that, especially in remote areas."
Efforts that are being made to cut the dropout rate include emphasis on reproductive health, distribution of sanitary pads to girls in school and construction of girls' only private latrines at school.
In Mayange Primary School in Bugesera District, for example, girls are benefiting from a new initiative dubbed 'Be-Girl Pads' aimed at reducing the number of school dropout by helping pupils address the challenge of managing their menses.
Meanwhile, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), a local non-govenmental organisation concerned with women's health, has urged government to lift the 18 per cent value added tax on feminine hygiene products to reduce cost.
No import duty is paid for such products in Rwanda.
The government allocates Rwf300,000 to each secondary school every term for sanitation, including the purchase of sanitary pads for students, according to Jackline Mupenzi, the advocacy and policy manager at SHE.
Doreen Nyangarisa, a mother in Rongai, a Nairobi suburb in Kenya, is of the view that sanitary hygiene is poorly acknowledged because people assume that it is something known but this is not the case in rural areas.
"This is because of problems of affordability and lack of education. In distress, most often due to problems of affordability, girls use rugs, pieces of mattresses and tissues and these things are bound to leak after a short time. This causes embarrassment - the girls' uniforms get soiled. Their peers (boys) laugh at them and it causes psychological trauma which will make the child dodge school," Nyangarisa told The New Times.
"For the situation in Kenya, girls in the urban areas have an advantage because they are better informed in terms of hygiene than their rural counterparts and are better placed to take care of themselves during their menstrual periods."