The news just announced that free sanitary pads are to be offered to Kenya's schoolgirls is a welcome relief. It is an unfair and distressing reality that millions of girls in the developing world are held back by their periods - a process that is natural and unavoidable.
"The Kenyan government is making a vital contribution to ensuring girls receive an education and are treated the same way as boys," says Agnes Kola, National Women's Rights Coordinator at ActionAid Kenya. "Lack of access to quality, free and sufficient sanitary products means many young girls drop out of school while on their period, putting them at greater risk of child marriage and getting pregnant at a younger age."
Purity, 13, and Abigail, 14, are two girls who would often miss classes at their mixed school in West Pokot, Kenya, because they couldn't afford sanitary pads and were worried they would stain their clothes. This new initiative will help to change this for other schoolgirls.
It is estimated that one in 10 girls in Africa will miss school when they have their periods. At ActionAid we are working on this problem worldwide. In Rwanda, we have built safe spaces for girls in nine schools. These safe spaces are rooms run by a matron in a separate building and are equipped with a toilet, a shower, sanitary products, spare clothes, and a private space to change and rest. They ensure that girls don't have to fear the embarrassment of stains on their clothes, and boys in their class bullying them about it, which stops them from going to school.
But another key problem that needs to continue to be tackled is how to get other girls out of poverty and enrolled into school, where they can get access to these benefits.
As well as providing free sanitary pads and safe spaces in schools, for example, ActionAid is collaborating with local communities to improve access to toilets and showers and provide safe environments where girls can ask questions about periods, sex and pregnancy. This helps them understand the facts and their rights - that periods are natural and that they can change their lives for good by attending school.
Cultures all over the world have developed harmful and even destructive ideas and beliefs about menstruation. As a direct result of the persistent menstrual taboo, there is a critical lack of health education resources available for young women about the menstrual cycle. It is this lack of knowledge that perpetuates myths and isolate and shame women each month. Purity and Abigail, for example, had to eat from a separate plate and cup from the rest of their family whenever they had their periods.
So aside from providing free sanitary pads, which we welcome and applaud, there is much more to be done and it is essential that governments like Kenya keep up the good work they are doing.
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