School life hard without water and proper toilets

Menstrual Hygiene Management

Fredrick Musoke
adolescent girls in a classroom
Fredrick Musoke
12 July 2019

“School life without water and clean toilets is sometimes very hard for us,” says Olive John, a grade 8 student from Kerebug Lutheran Primary School in Mount Hagen, Western Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Olive is one of ten adolescent Kerebug school girls that participated in a focus group discussion (FGD) to explore menstrual hygiene-related challenges that girls like them face in primary schools.  Thanks to funding support from the European Union, these challenges will be addressed through a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) campaign that UNICEF is facilitating.

The FGD was part a wider knowledge, attitude and practices (KAP) WASH study done recently in four PNG districts: Hagen Central (Western Highlands), Goroka (Eastern Highlands), Naweab (Morobe) and Central Bougainville (Autonomous Region of Bougainville).

“When there is no rain, we have no water for washing our hands or even to clean up.”

Olive John
Two female students walking towards a pit toilet
Fredrick Musoke
7 out of 10 schools in Papua New Guinea lack gender-segregated functioning toilets, according to a 2016 study

A 2016 study done on PNG schools found that half of the 4,700 schools studied, lacked access to basic water supply. The same study found that 7 out of 10 schools lacked gender-segregated functioning toilets . This makes life at school difficult for girls like Olive and her friends who need privacy when using toilets and to manage their monthly periods.

In another study by PNG’s National Department of Education (NDoE) in 2015 found that 70% of the schools lacked girls’ menstrual hygiene management facilities and programmes. 

Lack of water and menstrual hygiene-friendly toilets are hardly the only challenges girls face. Many young girls in PNG are often unprepared for their first menstruation due to lack information. This is often a result of the silence and stigma attached to menstruation in PNG.

MHM leaflet
Christopher Cherry
Information leaflets on menstrual hygiene management for adolescent girls.

Many young girls in PNG are often unprepared for their first menstruation due to lack information. This is often a result of the silence and stigma attached to menstruation in PNG.

Olive and her schoolmates said that their parents did not talk to them about menstruation, which is often the case for most young girls in the country where many parents feel shy or embarrassed to talk to their children about it or do not think it is important to do so.

Moreover, in PNG, as in many other countries, cultural beliefs stigmatizing girls during menstruation abound. These include girls not being allowed to cook food or enter the kitchen for fear of causing men to become less masculine and parents to age faster. Added to this are the practical challenges such as failure by some families to give pads to adolescent girls for use during menstruation.

The girls say they fear being teased and laughed at by other students because of their periods. As such, they stay at home while on their periods as they often are unsure about the availability of water and safe, clean, separate toilets for boys and girls to allow them to manage their periods with dignity and in privacy.

A group of adolescent girls
Fredrick Musoke
Olive and her friends.

According to Alexandra Conroy, an Urban Development Specialist of the Asia Development Blog, girls in the Pacific including PNG, like in many developing countries, miss up to five days of school every month because their schools don’t provide adequate facilities for girls to manage their period.  Girls who miss class often perform poorly and are more likely to drop out of school.

The EU-UNICEF-PNG Government WASH Project, under implementation in the 4 districts, will – among other things, contribute to better menstrual hygiene management through rehabilitating WASH facilities in 200 schools by improving water facilities and construction of separate toilets for boys and girls. It is also supporting an awareness-raising campaign on WASH, including menstrual hygiene management among students (girls and boys) as well as their teachers and parents.

At the end of the project, Olive and many other girls like her in over 200 project target schools, will no longer find going to school an uncomfortable experience and will be able to attend classes normally.