(As features on Irish Times February 2015)
For girls and women in Ireland, it is impossible to imagine attending school as an adolescent without the basic necessities of underwear and sanitary towels, but this is the reality for many girls in Kajiado County, in Kenya, home to the Maasai people, a semi-nomadic pastoralist community.
Menstruation without these items means many girls have no choice but to stay at home from school for 4-5 days per month. The impact of such frequent absenteeism results in lower educational achievements and often leads to girls dropping out of school before completing the KCPE – the Kenyan Primary Certificate.
Aidlink and the Girl Child Network have worked in partnership on this issue for 10 years, creating girl-friendly learning environments for some of the most isolated and disadvantaged school children in Kenya. Together they developed the School Sanitation Improvement Project, which is now operational in almost 100 primary schools throughout Kajiado.
The project sets out to ensure primary school-children, especially girls, are enrolled in school, stay in school, perform well and continue to secondary and higher institutions of learning. A central part of this involves tackling one of the ongoing obstacles to keeping girls in education in Kenya, that of menstruation.
For most girls, getting their first period is often a trying time, but for girls in rural Kenya it can mean an end to education. Aidlink and the Girl Child Network’s project improves the school learning environment by providing water tanks, girl-friendly latrines, sanitary towels, underwear and the delivery of sexual maturation training.
Additionally, FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) is a core cultural practice among the Maasai people and is considered a pre-curser for marriage. For Maasai girls who stay in school, FGM and early marriage may be delayed, but poor performance and absenteeism due to menstruation often leads parents to disregard the benefits of education. Without school, girls as young as nine are subjected to FGM and subsequent childhood marriage. In times of hardship and drought, girls are traded as brides in exchange for livestock.
Although illegal in Kenya, FGM remains a cultural rite of passage for many traditional Massai communities, but progress is being made. In schools where the School Sanitation Improvement Project is not operating, FGM rates are around 73 per cent among Maasai communities. In schools where it is operating FGM rates have decreased to 62 per cent, and continue to decline.
This is Nancy’s Story (Pictured Above)
My name is Nancy Naserian Simel and I am 19 years old. I am the last born in a family of seven; James, Margret, Rebecca, Samuel and my parents – Simel and Noonkuta. James, Samuel and Rebecca are all married with two children each. Margaret will be getting married in April. My father keeps livestock and my mother is a housewife.
I live in Kajiado North Sub County which is the largest Sub County in Kajiado County. Currently, there is no pasture and water for the animals because there has been a severe drought in our area and most families have moved to other places in search of water and pasture.
I fear for our livestock because in the 2009/10 drought, my father lost all the livestock he had. This affected him so much and he went into depression. He was hospitalized for 12 days. He was later given 4 cows and 9 goats by our relatives and friends to start off again. I hope it will rain soon as the situation in Kajiado is worsening in terms of the drought and lack of water.
My school life
I went to Saikeri primary school which is nine kilometers away from our home. Every day I woke up at 5.00 am in the morning and travelled to school with no breakfast. I was a bright girl and liked school very much. I very well remember the first day I received my periods; it was in January of the first term in the year 2007. I was in standard six. I remember that day, the school bell ringing, reminding us that it was end of the Mathematics lesson and beginning of English lesson. I excused myself to go for a short call before my English teacher came in the class. I suddenly felt something sticky and tried looking at my dress. There was a red patch. I felt so scared because I thought I was sick. I remember thinking I had taken something poisonous and my stomach was bleeding.
I removed my school pullover and tied around my waist and decided to go to the class teacher to seek for permission to go home. All my classmates were looking at me and the boys were laughing. I felt embarrassed and run out of the class before I could hear more laughter. I was not able to locate my class teacher and so I went to my science teacher who gave me permission. I informed her that I was not feeling well.
On reaching home, I went to our Manyatta and slept. I felt sickly. I was afraid to even discuss with my mother. When my sister, Margret arrived from school, I told her about what had happened in school. She told me that it was a natural process called monthly periods or menstruation and that it comes monthly when we are of age. She advised me to use pieces of old clothes. I stayed home for four days – until when bleeding stopped. When my mother asked why I was not going to school, I told her I was sick and the stomach was painful. She asked my father to mix some herbs for me and was given to drink. When she later checked up on me, I told her that I was getting better.
When I went back to school, I overheard some boys murmur that I was now mature and could be married. The boys called me woman and said I was hit by a ‘red devil’ and that is why I was bleeding. This affected me so much but I could not discuss with anyone. Due to the previous experience, in the following month, I started carrying pieces of cloth in my school bag every day, just in case I started bleeding again.
A month later, the periods came. I was afraid to ask for permission from the teacher who was in class so as to change the ‘pad’ which were the same pieces of cloth. I later realized I had soiled my dress. I decided to go home until the periods stopped. This time I did not seek for permission. When I resumed, my class teacher punished me for being absent for a week without permission. In the following months, I remained home every time I experienced the periods. It took me eight months to discuss the issue of bleeding with my mother.
When I sat for my end of term exams, I dropped from position 3 to position 21. My class teacher was worried and called me to her office. She asked me why I had dropped in my class position. I was embarrassed and unable to tell her that I was absent because of the monthly periods. I instead promised her that I would work hard in the following school term.
One day during the routine eight o’clock school assembly, the head teacher informed us that there were visitors who were coming to school and wanted to meet girls from standard six to eight. I was so curious about the meeting and looked forward to attend the meeting. At around 11 o’clock, the school bell rung and we all went to the assembly point. The head teacher informed us that the visitors had arrived and girls in standard six to eight to meet in class seven classrooms. We all went and the visitors introduced themselves as coming from Girl Child Network and they told us that they were to train us about sexual maturation including monthly periods. I was very shocked that person from GCN who was going to train was a man, and I was wondering, ‘what does a man know about periods?’’. So Francis Omariba from Girl Child Network trained us on sexual maturation process and use of sanitary pads. He was very relaxed and understanding and told us that we should not be embarrassed about issues of sexual maturation because it is a very normal process for both girls and boys. I had never seen a sanitary pad before and so were all the other girls and we were laughing throughout the demonstration process. We later took turns to demonstrate on how to use a sanitary pad. Girl Child Network later gave us three packets of sanitary pads and three under wears. I was so happy and felt like someone had answered my prayers.
We all went to our respective classes feeling so happy. Most of my friends were giggling on our way to class. On reaching the classroom, boys snatched some panties and pads from girls and later used them to make balls for football. They also opened the girls’ bags to look at the pads. When we reported to the class teacher, she talked to the boys. Girl Child Network continued to supply us with sanitary towels every term. As a result of this, I did not miss my class lessons. This helped me to concentrate with my class work. My performance improved because I went to school every day. I later sat for my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education course exam where I attained 302 marks out of 500. I was the first in a class of 19 pupils.
Girl Child Network supported me to join Rombo Girls Secondary School where I sat for my Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education course exam last year, 2014. I am early waiting for my results and hope to join The University of Nairobi to pursue my career in engineering.
Using my experience, I help girls in my village during the holidays. They come to me to seek information on the use of sanitary towels. I also explained to them about sexual maturation process and that monthly period is normal and without which every girl should be worried.