Adolescent girls growing up in poverty face many more barriers to education than boys. One such barrier is menstruation.
Esnath hails from rural Zimbabwe, where most families live on less than US $1.90 a day, which can also be the cost of a single pack of sanitary pads (costs currently range between the equivalent of US $1.08 and US $2.00). Esnath was supported through secondary school by CAMFED in Wedza. For Menstrual Hygiene Day (28 May), she looks back on her own young adolescence to shine a spotlight on the devastating consequences for all of us when girls can’t afford basic menstrual products. It’s another barrier we must address now, and especially when schools re-open after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Growing up too fast was a challenge on its own, as my parents were not ready for another girl who was menstruating.
I was just 12 when I had my first period, still in primary school. I had not even received classes on menstrual health. Life got a little more complicated for me as I did not have the adequate sanitary material, let alone the knowledge on how to use any.
Since I was super young in comparison to my sisters, my mother had to sacrifice precious household money for the first and only pack of cotton wool for my pre-teen years. The following month I was told to look for some soft material from the pillow that I used. One of my older sisters taught me how to fold the cloth so that it does not fall off my baggy underwear. It was a struggle to not only use the unconventional material but together with underwear that is two sizes bigger; the ordeal is just unimaginable.
From the very beginning of womanhood, I suffered bullying from boys during school time, as I had to have a jersey/sweater tied around my waist regardless of the weather. So during the coldest parts of the school term I would find myself shivering, because although I left the house in a warm jersey, that was now a cover for my soiled skirt. I was very playful before, but I stopped doing sports and playing games that I liked during school breaks for the fear of dropping the cloth, and also due to the bullying, since each time I had my period there was a very high chance of spoiling the skirt.
I was not the only victim of this lack of sanitary material — most girls in my class and school were too. The majority, like me, had to use the unconventional material which is not all absorbent of the blood, hence the spoiling of the back part of the dresses and skirts. Then there is also the smell that is associated with the blood, since there are no washing rooms at school. I lived 6 kilometers away from the school, and I had to take that walk sustaining the cloth in the baggy underwear. Even the way one walks changes just to accommodate the alien material, increasing friction to the inner thighs and the private parts. I used to wish I could just walk without it and put it on when I got to school, since the cloth on its own caused me to have bruises especially on the soft skin and inner thighs.
Then there was the pain of the cramps. Some male teachers even scolded me for lying down during break times to get relief by putting pressure on the tummy. For pain relief I used to take aloe vera, raw and unprocessed, in its bitter state. It was a recommendation given to my sister by someone. It never really worked, but it was better to have your mind thinking you took something, rather than coping with 100% un-censored pain.
And the worst was when the period started unexpectedly, meaning no pad and no painkillers, and I passed more than a school term with boys saying I had an abortion as I have always had heavy flows, and now I suffered with cramps at school and no cloth.
Some of my friends were well known for not coming to school at least 3 days a month. They would actually celebrate when the period started on Friday, which meant that they would only miss one day of class and would live with the ordeal of bullying and a smelly bottom at school for just one day. That taunting smell of blood, not really fresh because of almost 8 hours without a shower whilst on your period, comes out like the smell of day old unrefrigerated fish on a sunny day. Everyone knows it’s that time of the month, worst still some would actually call you ‘smelly fishy’ and offer you a seat. It was not politeness — they wanted us to sit in the direction of the wind, taking the smell away.
A CAMFED partner school in Wedza, Zimbabwe. Photo: CAMFED/Jon Pilch
All this embarrassment, and lack of basic supplies and facilities reduces girls’ class attendance and therefore their pass rates. If only my school had had a medical aid kit with a few tablets to share with us during those days, one of my friends wouldn’t have opted for the other option to deal with cramps: we were always told, “period pain goes away once you get pregnant”. Missing classes a lot and failing to concentrate on the days you actually manage to come to school with the period, then getting bullied for not having proper sanitary wear, some friends of mine ended up dropping out completely. We started as a group with more than 20 girls but only 6 wrote the final national exams for ordinary level. This is a tragedy as the majority had great potential. The vicious cycle of poverty continues only because of a lack of basic amenities: sanitary wear, washrooms and pain control.
It’s thanks to the Mother Support Groups and CAMFED, stepping up to provide the much needed sanitary wear to girls like me, that they are now remaining in school. It is a necessity that should not be scarcity.
I think what we need now in all our rural schools is some help to establish something like what CAMFED provides. We received sanitary wear, in my case in the last years of high school, when CAMFED supported me financially, so I would not be forced to drop out. It was of trusted quality, disposable and easy to carry. In turn, those of us who were supported and are part of the CAMFED Association now support more girls in our communities with decent sanitary wear. But we can’t reach everyone and the need is great.
Also, water points in areas where there is river water available can help with implementing wash rooms in schools, which can go a long way to solving challenges like the ones I faced. The water points can be simple tanks with filters for the river water, to have it clean for a quick half bath to at least reduce the smells. This can be a project among us CAMFED Association members of different skills, taking charge of the construction, then instructing others on their use. From what I have learnt at EARTH university it is simple: just using rocks, sand and loam soil, water can be filtered.
You can see in me how this small level of support can completely change a life. Increasing self esteem and confidence among the rural girls is key to having empowered young women, who are in a position to become community leaders, improve things for this generation of girls, cut short the vicious cycle of poverty, and create sustainable and prosperous communities.
If you believe in every girl’s right to go to school, learn, thrive and lead change, why not ignite change today?
Esnath at EARTH University. Photo: Alvarez Sanabria, EARTH University
Esnath Divasoni is a member of the CAMFED Association of women leaders educated with CAMFED support, who are working to ensure that every girl secures her right to go to school. Their activism is born out of lived experience and empathy, and a deep understanding of context. Together we provide girls with the sanitary products, mentoring, knowledge and confidence they need to stay in school, learn, thrive and then lead change in their communities, breaking down taboos and addressing gender inequities.
Through CAMFED’s partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, Esnath successfully applied for a scholarship to study Agricultural Science and Natural Resources Management at EARTH University in Costa Rica, and earned her degree in December 2019. She had just started establishing an insect farm to produce sustainable protein in her rural community when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Esnath is also a core trainer helping to support CAMFED’s Climate-Smart Agriculture Guide Program, and feeding into the bespoke curriculum.