In the world’s poorer countries and rural areas – most particularly in Africa and Asia – girls who are menstruating usually can’t afford sanitary towels. Instead, they’ll use old rags. Worse, some will use unhygienic substances like sand, sawdust, leaves or ash. And, no matter what they use as sanitary material, they’re very likely to skip school during their periods.
Research has estimated that one in ten African adolescent girls misses school while menstruating. Many eventually drop out because of menstruation-related issues. These include the fact that affordable sanitary protection isn’t easy to access, the social taboos related to menstruation and the culture of silence that surrounds it.
Part of the research I’m doing for my PhD in education relates to whether providing free sanitary towels to girls in Tanzania’s poor areas – particularly in informal urban settlements – could improve school attendance. Research elsewhere on the continent has shown that this ought to be the case.
Growth of urban informal settlements
Informal urban settlements are increasingly common in Tanzania, as they are in many African countries. There’s often minimal sanitation and low levels of hygiene in such settlements, as they are overcrowded and lack formal infrastructure. Their residents are very vulnerable to outbreaks of water-borne diseases like cholera.
Women and children tend to be most affected by this lack of hygiene. Researchers have pointed out that many reproductive infections are potentially triggered by poor menstrual hygiene management. These diseases can, if left unchecked, make women more vulnerable to complications in pregnancy and childbirth.
As these settlements grow, so does the demand for schooling in and around them. In Dar es Salaam’s Manzese informal settlement for instance, there are more than 25 primary and secondary schools. These are surrounded by congested makeshift houses with poor drainage systems. Most of the schools have very few toilets or latrines – certainly not enough for all pupils and teachers.
Education is free at both primary and secondary level in Tanzania. That’s what the policy says, at least. In reality, while parents don’t have to pay tuition fees, they do bear the costs of things like textbooks, uniforms and bus fare.
Worse still, the country’s ambitious “free education” programme doesn’t consider the issue of menstrual health. It has not, for instance, made sanitary towels available to school girls – whether for free or at a subsidised rate. Providing these towels is a key way to keep girls in school, as research from neighbouring Kenya has proved. This is a matter of some concern for Tanzanian authorities and education experts: the drop-out rate among girls is high, with many never enrolling in secondary school.
There is no focused nationwide campaign to improve this situation. One pilot project is providing affordable sanitary towels in seven of Tanzania’s 100 schooling districts. Sometimes private philanthropists will provide a school of their choice with free sanitary towels. Such interventions are fine in the short term. But Tanzania urgently needs proper policies about menstruation and sanitary towels that will help the country’s girls and young women.
Again, neighbouring Kenya provides some guidance in this regard: in one of that country’s major informal settlements, Kiandutu, the state broadcasting corporation introduced and led a campaign that donated sanitary towels to adolescent girls every month for a year.
There are a few ways for Tanzania to tackle this important issue proactively. For instance, the country should start looking at low-cost local production methods for sanitary towels. Imports cost money and this might make any programme unsustainable in the long term. If the government works with vocational and training colleges, it could deal with two issues: the need for cheap but hygienic sanitary towels and the need to create jobs. Poor, unemployed women could be taught to make these products.
Tanzania parliamentarians also need to display political will. When the next year’s education budget is prepared, policymakers and education practitioners should push for a special fund that will support nationwide free sanitary towels. Of course it’s not menstrual issues alone that keep girls out of school, and work is needed in other areas to ensure that attendance improves. But a proper, politically backed policy is crucial if the country is really serious about keeping girls in school and not letting a biological fact of life hold them back.