Girls no longer miss school during their periods in Zimbabwe’s Buhera District

All photos: Pauline Hurungudo/CARE

In Zimbawe’s Buhera District, statistics show that boys have higher attendance in school than girls. Why is this?

Often girls miss school during their menstrual cycle.  According to estimates from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), about one in every ten school-age African girls doesn’t attend school during their periods or has dropped out at puberty due to lack of cleanliness and separate toilet facilities for girls.

In Buhera, girls face difficulty managing their periods at school due to lack of sanitary products and knowledge about hygiene management.

Seventeen-year-old Jennifer, from Mabvuragudo High School, says girls experience different feelings including fear, shame, and guilt.

“Girls from our school used to struggle during menstruation. Most girls did not have sanitary [products], so it was common for some to miss school for even over a week. Most girls …used cloths, and it was very uncomfortable. At one time a girl from school was embarrassed after the cloth fell in class, and so most girls preferred to stay at home during their period than face the shame,” she said.

Use of cloths often left the girls vulnerable to period shaming from boys, as most of them could not afford sanitary products. Others had never used sanitary products before.

The lack of awareness by parents and guardians on the importance of sending their daughters to school due to widespread traditional cultural norms and religious beliefs made the situation worse.

Jennifer says that due to poverty and lack of learning materials, she also had to endure school breaks without food. Some girls would go home and never came back to school.

With funding from and in partnership with the World Bank, CARE piloted the Social Protection and Wash Interventions to Keep Adolescent Girls in Schools in Zimbabwe project. The project compliments the Government of Zimbabwe’s Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) fee waiver program, which pays school fees for vulnerable students in both primary and secondary schools.

“While I received assistance from the government’s BEAM program, my family struggled to [ensure we] have enough food, uniforms and other school requirements. It was hard to concentrate in school,” said Jennifer.

“Now things have changed through CARE’s support with sanitary [products] and cash assistance. I received 9 pants, 26 packets of pads, 10 bars of soap and I even shared these with my sister. I now have a proper uniform and books to use, and my family can now afford food for us to eat. It has boosted my confidence and I am not embarrassed to be among other students. Even other girls now attend school consistently because our parents can now also support us,” Jennifer said.

Girl smiling towards the camera in a field

Statistics show that food insecurity is also one of the major drivers of early and forced marriage and absenteeism from school among adolescent girls.

Letwin from Mabvuragudo High School Guiding and Counselling (GNC) teacher, who also received training in counselling says that the change has been very significant.

“There was high absenteeism and poor performance by students, mostly girls. Parents were not aware of the importance of education, and this was worsened by poverty.”

“Children had so many squabbles in school and education was taken very lightly due to beliefs in the communities which did not value, particularly girls’ education, such as Kuzvarira (giving away of girl children at birth for marriage or [other] fulfilment purposes). After the teaching and training on education, children now have a sense of togetherness. The provision of sanitary products and financial assistance to their parents has also boosted their confidence and improved their [relationships]. Children no longer have to miss school or even go home during their period because the project has also enabled us to keep dignity kits including sanitary products, blankets, pills, soap, towels among other essentials to assist the girls,” Letwin said.

Through weekly guidance and counselling sessions with students Letwin is also equipping students with knowledge on gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, child protection, and menstrual hygiene management.

CARE distributes monthly cash vouchers and non-food items, such as sanitary wear, bath soaps, undergarments, and towels. Alongside these resources, trainings are held with household heads to help break down gender social norms.

The project also introduced Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs), which are supporting parents to start income-generating activities to keep their children in school. Community Pad Centers are being established in communities so that even after the project has ended adolescent girls and women in general will continue to have access to readily available, re-usable and affordable pads. So far, 6 groups have been identified for 6 school communities in respect of this sustainability initiative.