The government is committed to provide free compulsory basic education to every child in the country in accordance with the Basic Education Act 2013. It is also in line with Kenya’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goal 4 which states that all boys and girls should be able to have a quality education.
The government is also committed to promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as is enshrined in the Constitution. This is the overall goal of the State Department of Gender Affairs in the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs.
However, despite the provision of Free Basic Education, many girls continue to miss out on education due to absenteeism that is related to reproductive health issues as they are forced to stay away from school when they are not facilitated to manage their menstruation. Studies have shown that girls from poor families miss 20% of school days in a year due to lack of sanitary towels.
Data from the Ministry of Education indicates that a girl that is absent from school for four days in 28 days (month) loses 13 learning days, equivalent to two weeks of learning in every school term. In an academic year (nine months) a girl loses 39 learning days equivalent to six weeks of learning time. A girl in primary school between grades 6 and 8 (three years) loses 18 learning weeks out of 108 weeks. Within the four years of high school a girl can lose 156 learning days equivalent to almost 24 weeks out of 144 weeks of learning.
To address this challenge, the Government, through the State Department forGender Affairs has been charged with the responsibility of procuring and distributing sanitary towels for 3.7 million girls in public primary schools, special primary and secondary schools in the country at a cost of Kshs. 470 million during the 2017/2018 Financial year.
The Sanitary Towels programme to girls in public schools was first launched in 2011 under the Ministry of Education which have been procuring and distributing the sanitary towels to girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is estimated that the Treasury has pumped Sh1.9 billion into the programme and that has benefited 11.2 million girls. The programme had previously been targeting girls in schools located at 82 former districts chosen from marginalised and slum areas. Equally, a school’s location as per the National Poverty Index determined whether its pupils received the government-funded sanitary. In the new strategic initiative of the programme, it will now cater for all targeted girls in the entire country.
The programme was transferred from the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs during the 2017/2018 financial year with a budget of Ksh. 470 million.
The total beneficiaries of the projects are 3, 703, 452 girls collectively receiving 14, 813, 810 packets of sanitary towels costing Ksh. 420, 618, 057. The State Department for Gender s responsible for logistics, monitoring and evaluation for the entire project including:
- Quality Assurance on quality for money through the different implementation levels;
- Targeting and distribution from sub-County Headquarters to the individual schools;
- Publicity and Communication including information materials, National and County launches and media coverage
- Convening and facilitation of implementation Committees at different levels;
- The county women MPs are responsible for the actual distribution to the targeted girls at the schools.
The objective of the programme is to increase the access of teenage girls to sexual and reproductive health products so that we can increase their retention in school, transition to higher levels of learning and thereby enhance their academic performance.
The aim is to provide all school girls with sanitary towels so as to minimize absenteeism and put them at par with their male counterparts. It is estimated that girls from poor families miss 20% of school days in each year due to lack of sanitary products.
In the initial design the programme anticipated to cover all needy girls and women in all counties, however due to financial constraints only school girls in public primary, special primary and secondary schools will benefit from the programme.
The national government is identifying key partners who can supplement the government effort by procuring sanitary towels for girls out of school and vulnerable women such as street women and girls, girls in informal learning institutions and settlements and those in marginalized regions
The President recently signed into law the Basic Education Amendment Act (2016) which places the responsibility of providing free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels on the government to reduce the number of girls missing school during their menstrual cycle.
This new legal provision makes it an obligation for the government to provide the towels to every school-going girl who has reached puberty. It also compels the government to provide a safe and environmentally sound mechanism for disposal of the sanitary towels. The Basic Education Act Section 39 (k)says: “It shall be the duty of the Cabinet Secretary to provide free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels to every girl child registered and enrolled in a public basic education institution who has reached puberty and provide a safe and environmentally sound mechanism for disposal of the sanitary towels
Access to sanitary towels is a big challenge for many girls who come from poor families in Kenya with UNESCO estimating that around half of all school-age girls do not have access to sanitary pads. Indeed the 2016 UNESCO report estimates that one in 10 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa is absent from school during their menstrual cycle.
This prevents girls from participating and attending school because they feel ashamed or “unclean”. There are many instances where girls drop out of school once they start their periods. Staying at home and being out of education leaves them even more vulnerable to violations of their rights such as child marriage. Menstruation is linked to girls’ dignity and has a tremendous impact on their access to education and performance in school as girls will often miss days when they are menstruating.
The culture of silence around menstruation leads to the menstruation being viewed as a weakness and stigma for women and girls. The subject is hardly ever discussed freely in families, schools or the public.
It has been previously reported from various marginalised regions and rural areas in Kenya that school girls have been using unhygienic materials such as torn pieces of cloth, matters sponge, animal skin, old rags, leaves, cow dung or even dig a hole on the ground to sit on for the whole period as a means to manage their menstrual flow. Use of unhygienic materials can lead to; leakage, infections, psychological discomfort which may culminate to poor performance and stigmatisation. The inaccessibility of menstrual products resulted in embarrassment, anxiety and shame when girls and women stained their clothes. Schoolgirls described menstruation as a time of anxiety and discomfort especially at school, leading to low concentration in class.