For many girls, getting their first menstruation is often a trying time, and sometimes leads to school absenteeism and in extreme cases, dropping out.
Miriam Juma, 14, started her menses when she was 12 and in class six. “It was very embarrassing since no one had ever talked to me about it,” she said.
On her first day, Miriam, who was at home, used tissue paper and spent the better part of the day in bed until her mother saw her stained dress. “My mum asked me what it was and I broke into tears. At that point I am sure she knew what it was and she gave me a packet of pads,” remembers the standard eight pupil at Baba Dogo Primary School.
Though her mother never took her through the basics of using a sanitary towel, Miriam admits she is lucky to have parents who can afford them. “I have friends who use old mattresses and clothes which they wash for use the next month,” she says.
Mary Awuor, whose menstruation started while in class five, said one of the biggest challenge they face is humiliation from boys when periods start while in school. “Boys laugh at us when we happen to soil our clothes and this lowers our self esteem,” said the class eight pupil.
The girls in this school have come up with a way to help out those who cannot afford sanitary pads. From the pocket money they are given by their parents, they each donate Sh5 which is kept by the head girl and if any of them is in need of sanitary pads they buy for her.
“Most of us come from poor families in the slums surrounding this area. Most parents don’t afford the sanitary towels even when schools close so we buy for those girls with the little we save,” she said.
Mary said some of them get between Sh10 and Sh15 to buy something to eat during break time.
The girls said the school gives them one packet of sanitary towels each month.
“Some of us have really heavy periods and a packet which consist of eight pads is never enough and that is where we come in,” said Mary.
According to the school deputy head teacher Grace Kimathi, two girls have dropped out of the school due to humiliation after soiling their uniforms. “During menses, the girls are forced to stay at home or endure embarrassment from others, especially boys, when they soil their uniforms. This has cost us two girls,” she said.
She said about 20 per cent of girls miss school at different times of the month due to menses. “They shy off from coming to school and sitting those long hours.”
The school is currently training the girls on life skills and preparing even the young ones on what to do when they start menstruating.
“We take them through life skills lessons and even train the boys on accepting the girls and bridging the gap,” she said.
Chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer has partnered with the school to keep the girls in school even during menses. The company has built sanitation facilities and will be providing the girls with three packets of sanitary towels and inner wears every term.
Bayer manager in East and Central Africa Rolando Satzke says they decided to get involved with the school because they neighbour it at Baba Dogo.
“They are our neighbours and we feel we have an obligation to help with the wellbeing of the pupils,” he said.
Rolando says they started contributing to the school a year ago and they will continue doing it for as long as they remain neighbours.
Many girls miss on average four days of school every month, which is over a month in a year, meaning they fall behind in class and sometimes even drop out of school altogether. This is an added challenge to the already existing problems that lead to the high dropout rate of female students in primary and secondary schools.