Join the global movement for girls' rights Recently, I spent time in Tanzania with some adolescent girls forced to flee their homes in Burundi. As I spoke to them it became clear they had a common concern – how to manage their periods.
I listened to their worries about coping with their periods and the effect it was having on their education. I realised how uncomfortable and embarrassed they were during their periods and how worried they were about people finding out.
Periods affect school attendance
“We lack sanitary pads, soap and underwear. This seriously puts our school attendance in danger,” said one girl who attends the only school in the camp. “It’s humiliating if the boys find out. One boy told a girl to go home because she shouldn’t be at school.”
Another girl said, “The fear of actually bleeding in school is a nightmare. I want to come to school. But there’s no way. How can I stay in class when I’m having my period? I feel so dirty and I hate it.”
It became clear that the anxiety girls feel during their periods means they simply can’t focus on their lessons and increases the chances of them missing school.
Menstruation for refugee girls is encumbered by shame, discomfort, embarrassment and inconvenience.
The lack of safe, hygienic toilets at their school also stands in the way of them being able to manage their periods effectively.
One girl explained, “There are more than 150 girls and only 3 toilets. There are no doors and no buckets to wash ourselves.” Another said, “The latrines don’t give us any privacy. When we are on our periods, it’s an even bigger problem.”
When I asked how they cope with these conditions, one girl replied, “We ask residents nearby to use their toilets so we can clean and change. It’s embarrassing to ask strangers, but we have no other choice.”
Out-of-school girls face extra risks
Menstruation for refugee girls in Tanzania is encumbered by shame, discomfort, embarrassment and inconvenience. In addition, the hormonal changes girls experience during adolescence can lead them to feel deeply self-conscious and have low self-esteem. All these factors add up and cause girls to miss several days of school each month.
Absence from school can impact girls’ safety. During emergency situations girls face added risks and this is no different for Burundian refugees in Tanzania. Most have exhausted their own resources after years of displacement and has caused many to turn to begging, child labour, child marriage and sex work to cope. This, in turn, can lead to sexual health problems as well as early pregnancy.
By keeping girls in school, however, these risks reduce dramatically.
Keeping girls safe and in school
That’s why Plan International is working in Nduta refugee camp, home to over 78,000 Burundian refugees, to reduce school absenteeism and drop-outs among girls related to menstrual hygiene management.
We have distributed dignity kits to adolescent girls in the camp that include reusable sanitary pads, soap, underwear, body lotion, a comb, razors and a kitenge (a cloth wrap). We have also provided training to girls at the school in the camp on how to manage their periods effectively.
Speaking with girls who have benefited from this project, it is easy to see the impact it has had. “I know my menstruation days and can get ready for it,” said one girl. “I confidently know how to handle menstruation. I also realise that it is a normal thing,” said another.
From my time in Tanzania I have seen how something as common as a period can become a huge problem for girls, causing them to miss school and putting them at risk. However, with simple provisions and training, girls can stay in school giving them a chance to build a positive future despite the upheaval and stress they have experienced.