Fifteen-year-old Belinda (not her real name) from Highfield, Harare misses school every time she is going through her menstrual cycle. Apart from the dysmenorrhea (also known as painful periods, menstrual cramps), her grandmother cannot afford to buy sanitary wear for her. So she was trained to improvise and use old cotton cloths. And that is not a very pretty thing to do. Never mind that it is dehumanising.
Ever since she started her menstrual cycles, the struggle has been real. Apart from the lack of understanding the changes her body is going through, she has had to miss school for five days every month due to dysmenorrhea and lack of sanitary wear.
Her cycle lasts for almost seven days, and for those days she uses cloths that she has to wash. Due to her heavy flow, she sometimes messes her uniform hence cannot take chances to go to school.
Compounded by the erratic water supplies, the local authority's failure to consistently provide the basic human right need has further worsened her misery. For better hygiene, she needs water to wash her cloths.
Since she started menstruating at the age of 14, the Form 3 pupil says the seven days are a nightmare. She was taught not to talk about her cycle to anyone especially men. So she suffers the dysmenorrhea, amid other myriad of challenges in secrecy. She would rather stay at home and miss school.
18-year-old Lorraine, an Upper Six student from Mount Darwin in Mashonaland Province believes lack of comprehensive knowledge towards boys of their age has not made life any easier for them. She adds that lack of sanitary wear is the biggest challenge most girls face.
"The worst challenge is the lack of sanitary wear. Some have had to use the inner part of the mattress and sometimes recycle it, given such circumstances, there is no way we can talk of menstrual hygiene," she said.
"While we have organisations that have come in the area and tried to assist with sanitary wear to vulnerable girls, this is not enough. This has increased the girl's vulnerability and some girls have had to have sex with older men in exchange for money for sanitary wear."
"Some pads in shops were found to be causing infections like rashes and upon investigation, it was discovered that the pads would have long been on the shop shelves as they are expensive and out of reach for many girls," she said.
Lorraine believes comprehensive education about menstruation can also help boys understand and treat girls differently.
"Most teenagers from my school lack awareness such that they tend to feel out of place during their menstruation days. For some of us, this is the worst time to be at school as we are sometimes harassed by boys when they suspect one is menstruating. They will even tease you about it," she said.
The myriad of challenges these girls face mirrors that of the majority of impoverished girls around the country who like Belinda and Lorraine, miss school during their menstrual cycle days.
Ministry of Health and Child Care's director for Family Health, Dr Bernard Madzima believes the solution lies in the provision of free sanitary wear for these girls especially those from disadvantaged communities while also emphasising on Comprehensive Sexuality Education that provides information and guidance about the physical and emotional aspects of growing up.
"Menstrual hygiene is a critical component for any women let alone the adolescent girl. In a country like Zimbabwe, menstrual hygiene remains a mammoth task due to economic hardships.
"Most girls do not have access to proper sanitary wear and they have had to make do with unhygienic materials like cotton cloths, newspapers, we have heard of cases where they have had to use cow dung.
"The girls have also been affected by critical water shortages especially in urban areas as we all know that during menstruation, a women needs water to keep clean" said Dr Madzima.
Dr Madzima added that parents, teachers, community and religious leaders also have a role to play to impart comprehensive sexuality educational skills so that girls and boys can better understand menstrual health.
While some donor organisations have tried to help the situation by providing girls from disadvantaged communities with free sanitary wear, there is still a huge gap that he believes can only be bridged through Government subsidising.
"Advocacy to have sanitary wear provided for free should continue."
The cheapest pack of sanitary pads costs more than a dollar.
According to a 2014 survey by the Ministry of Women and Youth Affairs, 20 percent of girls miss school due to menstruation while 62 percent miss school due to lack of sanitary wear.
Tag a Life International director Nyari Mashayambombe also reiterated that girls especially in rural Zimbabwe have no access to menstrual information and the resources they need to enjoy their menstruation cycle.
"Many of the girls reach menstruation time without the slightest of knowledge of what it is and what it means. When it happens they do not have sanitary wear to use. "Many of them discover it as a shock and something they do without support to go through it. It has been made taboo such that girls can't discuss this with their male relations including their fathers.
"As we commemorate this day, we call on all males and females to take part in ensuring that girls have a happy flow in their lives."
She added that it was a positive move that the world was beginning to pay attention to issues of menstrual hygiene.
The Amalgamated Rural Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe noted with a heavy heart that menstrual hygiene management remains a challenge for girls and women in Zimbabwe, where clean water and toilet facilities are often inadequate.
"In most rural areas some young girls resort to using weeds and leaves in place of sanitary pads thus compromising their Reproduction Health.
"It is against this background that ARTUZ is appealing for free sanitary wear in our schools. Most rural learners come from very poor backgrounds and they cannot afford them.
"Female teachers bear the burden of counselling these kids who are traumatised by their want of pads that at times force teachers to donate pads to the disadvantaged learners."
The union believes sanitary wear should be prioritised than condoms since sexual intercourse is by choice.
"ARTUZ advocates for free sanitary pads instead of free condoms since sexual intercourse is by choice.
"We also advocates for the provision of refreshing rooms in our schools so the girl child can freshen up during the course of the day and remain confident of themselves. In addition, we urge Government to ensure there are free painkillers for period pains in all schools."
The union added that the adverse attitude towards menstruation can negatively impact on the girl's self-image noting that more health education to male counterparts to respect this natural cause especially in schools, tertiary institutions and other public spaces where some women are considered unclean when they have menstruation is of paramount importance.
In her research titled, "Can better sanitary care help keep African girls in school?", University of Cambridge's Elizabeth Tofaris on behalf of the Impact Initiative for International Development research posits that for young girls in developing countries, not knowing how to manage their periods can hinder access to education.
The research further asserts that provision of free sanitary products and lessons about puberty to girls may increase their attendance at school.
Gender Links, a non-governmental organisation advocating for equality and justice believes if the Government and donor partners could invest as much as they are doing in condoms towards sanitary wear, this could change the lives of girls living in poverty and are forced to miss school every month.
While the Menstrual Hygiene Day marked annually on May 28 seeks to highlight the importance of good menstrual hygiene management, for girls like Belinda, Lorraine and majority of women and girls in Zimbabwe, this remains a pipe-dream.
This story was pursued in support and solidarity with women in the wake of Menstrual Hygiene Day held on May 28. Saturday Herald advocates dignity and respect for women, the custodians and givers of life.