Supporting girls in Sierra Leone to ensure safe and dignified menstrual hygiene management
Helping girls attend school any day of the month
Freetown, Sierra Leone – It is the end of the school day at the Services Secondary School in Juba, Freetown. Whilst a crowd of pupils make their way out of the compound, a group of girls gather in one corner of the school’s assembly grounds. They are members of the Girls’ Club and have assembled for their weekly meeting.
“Today, we will talk about the challenges our fellow girls face when they have their menses and what we can do to support them,” says Rugiatu Gando, a fifteen-year-old Peer Mentor and member of the Girls Club. As a peer mentor, Rugiatu has been trained in menstrual hygiene management and helps run the school club with the support of the other peer mentor and teachers.
When a girl starts her period, it doesn’t just indicate a biological change, but often brings an immense change in her life. In Sierra Leone, most girls face cultural stigma, as well as societal discrimination when they start menstruating. In addition, girls’ right to uninterrupted education gets violated through inadequate menstrual hygiene education, insufficient water and sanitation facilities, and poor access to sanitary menstrual materials in schools. Thousands of Sierra Leonean girls are forced to miss lessons by staying home during their menses. This can have a direct impact on their attendance, learning outcomes and school completion rates.
With thanks to the generous contribution from the Swedish Committee for UNICEF, UNICEF has been working with the Government and other partners to provide menstrual hygiene facilities in schools to promote safe hygiene practices in schools. This will ensure that girls in Sierra Leone can be in school any day of the month.
Through this support, 36 Girls’ Clubs have been established and 6,189 adolescent girls in 36 schools have received menstrual hygiene management information, and 6,000 menstrual hygiene kits (which include a set of five reusable pads and instructional leaflet, underwear, soap, and handkerchief) have been distributed.
Two months ago, Esther Kowa, a pupil of Services School and beneficiary of the MHM programme in her school had her menses for the first time and found the information and materials valuable. “I was not scared at all when it came. I took care of myself and then told my grandmother later that evening,” says Esther. “The programme helped prepare me because I had received all the information I needed, and most importantly I had the disposable pads which came in very handy. I may have had challenges getting menstrual pads if I didn’t have them” she adds.
“Menstrual hygiene facilities help to keep girls in school where they can reach their full potential,” says Suman Education Specialist at UNICEF Sierra Leone. “The support we are providing through our partners will help girls to keep learning while on their periods, because they deserve to be in school any day of the month,” she adds.
In addition to providing menstrual hygiene information and materials to girls, 180 teachers and mentors have been trained to 6,000 boys and men have been about the issue and empowered to engage their peers. “We have discussions in which we educate our colleagues about menstruation and encourage them to contribute to a supportive environment for adolescent girls in school and at home,” says Sao Musa, a member of the Boys to Men engagement group at the Services School. “We let our fellow boys understand the consequences of menstruation-related stigmatisation on girls and their education,” he adds.
Rashidatu Massaquoi, the lead teacher for the Menstrual Hygiene Management programme at the Services School says that absenteeism among girls in her school was common before the programme was introduced in the school. “Most of them missed school when they had their menses because of fear of getting their uniforms messed up while in school,” says Rashidatu. She agrees that the programme has triggered a positive change as it helps girls stay in school. “Through this programme, we keep working to ensure that girls in our school have access to menstrual products like sanitary pads and the necessary information and guidance they need so that when they have their period, even if it comes during school hours, they’ll feel confident and comfortable to attend lessons school without shame,” she adds.
With the knowledge about menstruation and the necessary MHM materials available in her school, Esther, now in her second year of secondary education, says she and other beneficiaries of the programme will no longer worry about missing school because of their menses.