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SWAZILAND: Girls Leave School Because of No Sanitary Wear

Mantoe Phakathi

MBABANE, Jun 15 2011 (IPS) - After a newspaper that Prudence* (16) used as sanitary wear fell from her while she played with friends at school, she left and never returned.

The impoverished A-student could not handle the teasing or embarrassment. It was not the first time the Nkonyeni High School pupil was embarrassed by her period. But this incident proved to be more than she could bear.

“This student would also find herself in the uncomfortable position of having blood flowing down her legs because her periods tended to be very heavy,” said Todvwa Mnisi, a teacher at the school.

Prudence was too embarrassed to go back to school and eventually married – ending her studies.

“We were very sad to lose her because she was a very bright child and her life could have been turned around had she stayed at school,” said Mnisi.

The prevalence of this problem has the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) considering approaching government. According to SNAT gender officer Bongiwe Khumalo, many teachers have identified this problem at their schools. Very few have been able to assist the young girls because of lack of resources. However, the organisation has no statistics available on how many girls are leaving school.

“Government is now providing school feeding and also exercise books,” said Khumalo. “But after realising that a lot of children dropped out of school because they were hungry or they could not afford exercise books, government intervened and it has helped a lot in education.”

She said by providing sanitary wear, government could help ensure that more girls do not drop out of school. “But the challenge is that, with the economic crisis facing the country, government is not likely to be open to such ideas,” said Khumalo.

Mnisi, a career guidance teacher, took it upon herself to help girls buy sanitary wear with money from her own pocket. She urged every student without sanitary wear to consult her but the demand is now beyond what she can afford to spend.

She said an average of 10 pupils a month are in desperate need of sanitary wear at the school situated in the Hhohho Region with about 200 students.

“Besides the principal, I’m the only female teacher at the school, which explains why the girls feel comfortable to confide in me,” said Mnisi.

The lack of sanitary wear among poor Swazi girls has forced a group of young women to spring into action to help. The Swaziland Young Women Network (SYWN), comprising of women living with HIV, professionals, tertiary institutions and communities, is trying to get people to contribute sanitary wear for poor girls.

“Through our organisation, we’re trying to mobilise other young women to donate a least one pack of sanitary wear each time they buy their toiletries every month,” said Hleli Luhlanga, SYWN coordinator.

The campaign started in December but so far, they have not been too successful. They say this is because many people do not think that lack of sanitary wear is a problem. The network is intensifying awareness of the situation through media campaigns.

“The challenge is that these girls are very poor and even if you can give them money to buy pads, that would not be a priority because they are coming from food insecure backgrounds,” said Luhlanga.

About 63 percent of the Swazi population lives below the poverty line of two dollars a day. The country also has about 130,000 orphans and vulnerable children, the majority of whom are girls. Most of these orphans do not have access to proper sanitary wear.

And most young women are substituting proper sanitary wear with rugs, newspapers and toilet paper, said Luhlanga. These materials are not only inadequate but some tamper with their reproductive systems.

According to Family Life Association of Swaziland (FLAS) communications and marketing manager Mancoba Mabuza, newspapers and rugs are discouraged because the material used could cause infections in their vagina.

“These materials do not have the ability to absorb the blood,” said Mabuza. FLAS does not object to women using cotton cloth, which had been the practice many years ago, but the emphasis is on cleanliness and smoothness of the material.

“Whether one uses sanitary pads or tampons, we emphasise that she needs to change them every after four hours to avoid infection which could be the consequences of the blood piling up,” said Mabuza.

With the escalating costs of sanitary wear, SYWN has attempted to engage service providers such as supermarkets to convince them to bring down their prices. But the head offices of most retail supermarkets in Swaziland are based in South Africa and the local managers do not have the authority to make such decisions.

“We haven’t given up on the idea and we’re also talking to government to exempt service providers from paying tax for sanitary wear so as to bring down the prices,” said Luhlanga.

Schools are also taking the responsibility of addressing the problem by raising funds within the learning institutions.

Minisi said her school is raising funds through civil days where students do not wear school uniform and pay 40 cents. Teachers also wear whatever they want and pay one dollar and 50 cents. So far the school has raised 18 dollars.

*Name withheld to protect the identity of the minor.

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