I wonder how many affluent parents and guardians would be happy if their child had to miss 60 days out of the school year through no fault of theirs.
Well, that is the disquieting estimated number of days some adolescent schoolgirls absent themselves from school for a simple reason: when they’re menstruating they stay home because they don’t have sanitary pads (also known as sanitary towels/napkins) to protect themselves during the average five days duration of their period.
And they don’t use sanitary pads because their parents can’t afford them.
A pack of 12 sanitary pads, costs about GHȼ5 for some brands, or less; and some users may need more than one pack a month. It may sound unbelievable to the well-off that GHȼ5 or GHȼ10 is a monthly expense that some parents can’t afford for a daughter; but that is the reality.
It is two years since this column wrote about this issue (on July 11, 2014) which had generated great controversy over the sanitary pads component of a World Bank loan of US$156 million in 2014 for a ‘Ghana Secondary Education Improvement Project’.
The announcement that part of the support would be used to supply free sanitary pads to adolescent girls from deprived homes, led to a widespread furore and ridicule of the Government, especially in Opposition quarters. Fears were also expressed that the money would be misused.
However, it appeared that many people, including even women, couldn’t believe that there are families in Ghana so poor that they either don’t know about sanitary pads, or the cost is beyond them.
Some men even claimed that lack of sanitary pads can’t make girls stay out of school. And, strangely, they made their pronouncements as if speaking from experience!
Unfortunately, some members of the media, too, responded with frivolity and vulgar comments, as if they didn’t know that there are desperately poor people in Ghana and that the duty of the media also includes fighting for such people.
Now, in July, 2016, the issue of sanitary pads and girls education is back in the news, thanks to an admirable initiative by some concerned people. The country is being urged to appreciate that to keep all girls in school, providing sanitary pads to the needy is critical.
In the Spectator of July 2, under the blunt headline, ‘Project to reduce menstruation-related absenteeism launched’ Kingsley E. Hope reported from Dagomba, Sekyere Afram Plains that a project to reduce the high rate of absenteeism from school has been launched at Dagomba D/A Basic School in the Sekyere Afram Plains District of the Ashanti Region.
The ‘Always Keeping Girls in School Programme in Ghana’, under the auspices of the Educational Empowerment Initiative is a collaboration with World of Children and Proctor and Gamble (P & G).
It will help girls to remain in school and complete their education by providing them with sanitary supplies. Some 1,000 girls will benefit from the project over the next six months.
Winifred Kyei Selby, president and founder of the programme, explained: “Our holistic approach incorporates menstrual health management education and access to water, private toilets and sanitary products without which most girls decide to stay away from school (for) the duration of their period.”
Ms Selby added that their “ultimate goal is use the programme to spark change”, for the government to adopt policies such as removing the sales tax on menstrual products to make them cheaper and available to students of school going age.
Stressing the seriousness of the absenteeism, she pointed out that “girls who cannot afford sanitary pads miss approximately five days of school a month which amounts to 60 missed school days a year.”
I’m also happy that Ms Selby’s venture includes another critical need: toilets in schools. Shamefully, there are many schools that don’t have toilets, meaning that even when girls have pads, where they can change during classes presents a huge problem. That, too, keeps some out of school during their menses.
Also, prior to the Government’s proposal, in this paper’s issue of May 2, 2014, this column had paid tribute to an Indian man, Arunachalam Muruganantham, dubbed ‘the Indian sanitary pad revolutionary’ in a BBC Magazine feature.
Horrified to discover that his wife was using rags during her periods, Mr. Muruganantham, a school drop-out, spent years trying to develop a machine to produce cheap sanitary pads for rural women – and eventually succeeded.
I suggested that he could be invited to Ghana, to establish cheap pads-manufacturing outfits in our rural areas, too, but there has been no response to this suggestion.
Since the 2014 frenzy, nothing more had been heard about sanitary pads distribution until the welcome news of the Selby project. I also support wholeheartedly her plea for the taxes on sanitary products to be abolished so that all the needy can afford them.
It’s particularly instructive that Ms Selby’s partners in the project include P &G, a well-known American multinational company who manufacture consumer goods.
Undeniably, menstruation, previously considered a taboo subject, can no longer be considered as such. Therefore, related problems for the vulnerable must be discussed and resolved.
One hears so much talk about the need to have more women in leadership in Ghana. How is the state ensuring a fair opportunity for all if the schooling of so many is disrupted every month for lack of sanitary pads?
Or is it only girls from privileged backgrounds who should have full access to education?
It’s remarkable that the management of a First World company, like Proctor and Gamble, can understand that there are families in Ghana too poor to afford sanitary pads when some of our own people can’t, or deliberately refuse to, admit this conspicuous truth.
What an irony!