An experience that is supposed to be natural and beautiful is often traumatic and unbearable for many rural schoolgirls, who do not have access to sanitary towels while they are menstruating.
This is also the reality for 15-year-old Selma Jonas, one of the many rural learners in the country who have to endure this struggle.
“Life stops for me when I start my period. I withdraw from everyone and go into a shell, so that people do not know what I am going through,” she said.
For her, menstruation consists of constant trips to the toilet, to check whether she has soiled her Haimbili Haufiku Senior Secondary School uniform.
The school is situated in the east of Eenhana, in the Ohangwena region.
Every month, Jonas is forced to use foam from her school mattress as a sanitary towel replacement, while sometimes she uses pieces of old cloth, which she then flushes down the toilet, so that no one can see.
Jonas dreads the time leading to her menstruation, and she sometimes becomes depressed, because it is a very uncomfortable time.
“It is very difficult to concentrate in class, because you are more concerned about what is happening under your skirt. You are not free among friends and you are quiet and the teachers wonder what is going on,” she said.
Sanitary towels are not regarded as a basic need by most parents, while African culture and tradition prevents many mothers from speaking to their daughters about menstruation, making life even more difficult for many rural girls.
Some end up missing over three days of school each month, because they do not have the sanitary towels they need during their menstruation.
Jonas started having her periods at the age of 13, just after starting Grade 7.
She said it was a dreadful time for her.
“It is not easy to access sanitary towels, because of financial problems, and also because parents are very ignorant. They do not prioritise such items,” she said.
The young lady was raised by her grandmother, who never mentioned anything about the subject, and so she went through her first experience alone.
“It was a very difficult time for me, because I did not know what to do, and I did not have anything to use. I was also scared to tell anyone, because most girls my age had not started menstruating,” she said.
According to Haimbili Haufiku Senior Secondary School Life Skills teacher, Helvi Iita, the situation is grimmer for rural girls because most of them are not raised by their biological parents.
She said most guardians can only manage to buy the most basic food items, and sanitary towels are considered as luxury.
“What we have discovered is that most of these girls have no idea what to do when they start their periods. Even those who can afford sanitary towels do not know even how to use them.
“And because they are shy about their ignorance, they end up hiding and concealing that they have started menstruating,” Iita said.
There are about 600 girls at the school and Iita believes that over half of the girls struggle with the menstruation issue.
Another student, Olivia Lukas, who is being raised by her aunt, after her mother passed away when she was just nine years old, related how having so many girls and women in one household can be a huge challenge when it comes to sanitary towels.
As an alternative, the 15-year-old cuts pieces of clothing and then stuffs them in a sock to form a makeshift sanitary towel.
At school, Lukas also makes use of foam during menstruation, just like many of her peers.
School Principal Rabanus Shaninga said that the lack of sanitary towels is a very big problem at the school, which is causing learners to miss classes quite often.
He is also concerned about schoolgirls flushing makeshift sanitary towels down the toilets, which he said is wreaking havoc with the school’s plumbing, often causing major blockages.
Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture Permanent Secretary Sanet Steenkamp said that the menstruation issue is critical, adding that girls often spend over three days away from school every month, when they are on their periods.
In an interview with the Windhoek Observer, Steenkamp said schoolgirls who resort to different makeshift methods during their menstruation, exposes themselves to health problems. The ministry’s Deputy Director for Diagnostic Advisory and Training, Aisha Wentworth, said that they had considered introducing reusable sanitary towels, but these were considered too unhygienic, especially in the light of the ongoing drought.
She said that questions were raised as to how they would be washed, especially with the shortage of water.
Health experts have also warned against the use of cloth and other materials in place of sanitary towels, as they may cause infections.
“Former First Lady Penehupifo Pohamba’s office previously had a campaign to collect sanitary towels to donate to rural schools, but the project failed because of sustainability problems,” Wentworth said.
The experiences of the schoolgirls at the Haimbili Haufiku Senior Secondary School are a microcosm of what is happening across the country
The taboos and myths surrounding this subject of menstruation also contribute to the culture of silence and shame, which stops young girls from sharing with others what they are going through.
Some believe that if someone else gets hold of your menstruation blood, it can be used to bewitch you, which causes girls to go into fearful seclusion when they are on their periods.
There is also a stigma that menstruation is something dirty.
Some citizens who are aware of this hygiene challenge for young girls have been stirred into localized, informal action to help. One such effort has been launched by a Windhoek-based group of girls who started a private initiative they call: ‘#UpLiftHer.’
The volunteer group is quietly collecting sanitary towels for girls in less fortunate circumstances and hopes to make their donation to a local school before exams start.
For now, the group asks individuals as well as organisations for contributions to their effort and encourages others in their local areas to organize themselves to work with a local school to do the same thing.
“We realised from speaking to teachers that some girls were missing school because they did not have sanitary towels and so we decided to try something small just to see what was possible in order help out,” Pinias said.