Chantal* begun her menstruation periods when she was in primary school. She remembers refusing to go to school for about five days.
“It was during the first term in primary six that I got my first period. It happened after school while I was walking back home. My girlfriends told me there was blood on my school uniform. I got scared. One of them helped me with a sweater to tie around my waist to cover the stain. Neither my friends nor I knew what was going on,” Chantal narrates.
She says that when she reached home she took a bath thinking the bleeding would stop.
“I was so scared that I didn’t tell my mother what was happening. I spent many hours in the bathroom and took several trips to the toilet thinking the blood would stop but it didn’t. I went and talked to a neighbour (a girl) who was in senior two and told her my problem. She advised me to cut clean pieces of cloth and use them. I did what she told me but the cloths would get soaked every after an hour,” Chantal reveals. She obviously wasn’t able to buy sanitary towels.
“I didn’t go to school the following day because I told my mother that I had a headache and she gave me medicine which I didn’t take. The third day my mother grew suspicious and came to my room and told me she was going to take me to hospital and that was when I told her the truth,” she says.
Many girls nationwide miss school when they are in their menstruation period simpy because they cannot afford the Rwf500 that the cheapest sanitary pad costs. Usually a woman will use two packets a month.
Girl taking matters into their own hands
Girls in IFAK, a Kimihurura school, have initiated a programme to ensure that even the poorest girl in school can have sanitary pads.
“Most girls are too scared to talk to teachers or even their parents about menstruation”, says IFAK’s Gender Prefect Emmanuella Margot Mutesi.
“Here at IFAK we believe that we can handle this problem if we make it every girl’s priority. As the prefect of gender, I have representatives in each class and we collect Rwf100 from each girl but that’s for those who can’t afford it (sanitary towels). We buy the cheapest brands that cost Rwf700”, continues the senior 4 student.
She says that they never run out of stock and each class representative has a key to the cupboard where the pads are kept.
Father Elijah Nyandwi, the director of studies at IFAK, admits that they have been cases of girls missing school during their menstrual cycle.
“We have a daily register, and we can tell when one is present or absent. It’s true some girls miss school but if you ask them they usually say they are sick. I have also gotten cases where girls come to seek permission to go back home claiming they have severe headaches,” Nyandwi explains.
He says, “The funny part of it is that these girls tell me about severe headaches with one hand on the head and another on the stomach. I understand their situation; they can’t open up to me because I’m a man but the female teachers have been very helpful in these situations. When a child misses school, they are likely to miss some important knowledge and skills that the teacher imparted in their absence”.
Menstruation remains a taboo subject
In an exclusive interview with Women Today, Jackie Mupenzi, an advocate and policy manager at Sustainable Healthy Enterprise (SHE), a company working in Rwanda that makes pads from banana fibres, admits that girls and women in the developing world are bound to lose five years of the school or work over their lifetime because of menstruation.
“We surveyed about 500 Rwandan women and discovered that half the girls were missing school during menstruation because sanitary pads were too expensive,” Mupenzi explained.
The soft-spoken Mupenzi said that SHE developed the concept of a locally made banana fibre menstrual pads in Rwanda.
“SHE worked with MIT, North Carolina State University and the Kigali University of Science and Technology to help improve the pad, which is made of absorbent and chemical-free banana fibre fluff. The pad will cost 75% less than imported premium brand products and will be sold via a franchising model to ensure long-term sustainability,” Mupenzi noted.
“Menstruation remains a taboo subject in many places in Rwanda because open conversations are difficult, making menstrual hygiene management a huge challenge”, she says.
“To break the silence about menstruation, we have decided to work in partnership with many stakeholders across the country and globally to ensure an increase in knowledge and skills in Menstrual Health Management (MHM) through curriculum development and teacher trainings at both the national and local levels.”
She said that besides the pads being helpful to women and girls every month, jobs will be created because many women will be involved in the manufacturing process.