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Girls get help for school

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Community Chest is tackling a problem head-on by making sure it is addressed and researched as South Africa celebrates Women’s Month: The struggle of menstruating girls.

Community Chest Western Cape has partnered with Johnson and Johnson to help secure the academic future of more than 6000 female pupils.

This new project, launched last week to celebrate Women’s Month, will ensure that these girls do not face the prospect of skipping school and destroying their futures for R15 per month, the average cost of a pack of sanitary pads.

Over the next year Community Chest will distribute 6000 hygiene packs every school term to girls at 12 of the most affected schools across the Western Cape.

High schools involved in the project include Princeton in Mitchell’s Plain, Portlands, Strandfontein, Tafelsig, Lentegeur, Wynberg and Elswood in Elsies River.

School-going female menstruation has been an unspoken subject in many of the equality and liberation discourses, as if it’s a matter to be avoided and the subject of distasteful “that time of the month” jokes.

Where this discourse is most hidden is with the girl, says Community Chest. The fact that thousands of girls in school cannot afford sanitary pads means that during menstruation many simply skip school, often as many as 30 days of school per year, all because of a natural occurrence.

They will be deemed to be absent without reason from school, as often they will not have a doctor’s certificate.

How does a 14-year-old girl explain to a teacher she can’t afford sanitary pads and had to stay home?

The knock-on effects are tragic – they miss out on education and perform poorly or even drop out of school.

Unwanted or early pregnancy is often the next desperate attempt to give themselves a sense of meaning or to keep themselves alive with social grants. And the vicious cycle of poverty continues.

Unesco estimates that one in ten African girls miss school during their menstrual cycle. This contributes to a higher school drop-out rate. In the Western Cape the figures are unclear but anecdotal evidence shows that menstruating girls in school could be losing as many as three days a month in very poor communities.

Other anecdotal evidence shows that girls wear a “not too badly soiled” sanitary pad for more than one day. This dehumanising process impacts on the mental preparedness and well-being of the girl as she struggles to cope with educating herself in a “menstrually”-unfriendly environment.

Womanhood should not be about shame for the menstruating girl; it should be about a right to have access to adequate health care, which the Constitution guarantees.

Jo Pereira, Community Chest head of strategy and sustainability, says that though the distribution of sanitary wear was integral to the project, it had a far greater scope, involving three stages: Workshops to hear the girls’ stories, providing access to additional health and educational resources and to provide educational and health service providers with updated research.

“We have identified 12 schools in partnership with Lifeline/Childline, who will conduct workshops on the issues around teenage sexuality and health, life skills and psycho-social education,” she says.

“They will also identify those girls attending the workshops whom they believe may require additional psychological support and refer them appropriately.”

Merle Mills, Community Chest project manager, says it would also conduct the research: “We have developed a survey to contextualise the problem for the female pupils in Cape Town.”

“Lifeline/Childline will conduct the survey and collect the data during their workshops. Community Chest will then analyse and publish the data for use by other NGOs and corporate entities.”

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