NAIROBI - Menstruation often means missing school for many girls in parts of Africa. But should the state provide sanitary products to girls who cannot afford them to prevent them from falling behind in their studies?
That question continues to stir debate in several East African countries but especially in Kenya, where President Uhuru Kenyatta last year signed the Basic Education Amendment Act requiring the government to provide free sanitary towels to schoolgirls.
A 2016 U.N. report estimated that one in 10 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa misses school during her menstrual cycle due to an inability to access affordable sanitary products.
After two years of debate, Kenya's parliament voted overwhelmingly last year in favor of a measure that advocates say lifts that barrier to education. In June of 2017, President Kenyatta signed the amendment into law.
Sanitary towels handed out
This May, Gender Affairs Cabinet Secretary Margaret Kobia cleared the way for the distribution of one million sanitary towels to girls in Kenya’s Makueni and Kitui counties.
The government said it targeted more than 200,000 schoolgirls for distribution as part of a pilot program.
Through funds provided by the government and channeled to the county governments, the new law is set to benefit girls in all of Kenya’s 47 counties.
The government allocated $4.6 million to the gender department ministry to buy the towels.
Rachel Ouko is the Nairobi program coordinator for Femme International, a non-profit organization that provides menstrual cups and reusable, washable pads to underprivileged girls in Kenya and Tanzania.
“If that system can work very well, it will have a great impact on school-going girl,” Ouko said. “First of all, we have free education, so no girl should have an excuse of not going to school. Then there is free sanitary pads, so no girl should not have an excuse of going to school because they lack sanitary pads.”
Activists around the region say the issue is most pronounced in rural areas, and the problem is more complex than just supplying sanitary pads.
In 2017, the U.N. Children's Fund estimated around 60 percent of girls in Uganda missed class because their schools lacked private toilets and washing facilities to help them manage during their periods.
Cycle of frustration
Regina Kasebe is a Uganda social worker with Action Alliance, also known as Solidarity Uganda.
“Issues of women and girls cut across nations and you find that in schools when these young girls, most of them come from poor families and in the schools where we majorly work with and the challenge they have is during menstruation,” Kasebe said.
“Because they do not have sanitary towels, they do not use anything, so for those days you have to stay home you cannot go to school when you are in such a situation, so there is missing school during the days of menstruation and also they drop out because they get frustrated because they cannot continue handling the same issue over and over again,” she said.
Kasebe said girls in rural areas are also more likely to be married off once they have started menstruating, further contributing to drop-out rates.
Several African nations have taken steps to improve access to sanitary products for both women and girls.
Uganda announced in 2017 that sanitary pads would be exempt from value-added tax, and in November, Kenya removed duties on raw materials used in the production of sanitary pads to help make the product more affordable.
Missed work, school
According to Sustainable Health Enterprises, an NGO, 18 percent of women and girls in Rwanda missed work or school last year because they could not afford to buy menstrual pads. The NGO estimates that a lack of affordable sanitary pads costs Rwanda's economy $115 million per year.
Activists hope other countries in the region will follow Kenya’s example and take steps to make sanitary products more accessible, and thus help girls overcome a big disadvantage they have been facing at school.