Blood, pain and hu­mil­i­a­tion

Lesotho Times - - Feature - Pas­cali­nah Kabi

THABA-TSEKA — Ma­hali Tšoeu is in ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain, but the 14-year-old trudges on as if noth­ing is amiss.

A slight limp is the only be­trayal of her agony but the Bo­bete Pri­mary School stu­dent em­ploys all the tricks in the book to mask the un­even gait — the re­sult of cuts and rash from im­pro­vised san­i­tary pads the teenager uses dur­ing her monthly men­strual pe­riod.

Most times, Ma­hali uses sheep­skin as her pad, but while strong enough to ab­sorb the men­strual flow, it chafes against her thighs, leav­ing them bruised hence the limp.

But be­cause she is an or­phan liv­ing with grand­par­ents who are find­ing it dif­fi­cult to pro­vide for her ba­sic needs, Ma­hali is left with no choice but con­tinue us­ing the crude men­strual towel.

At times, the young­ster sub­sti­tutes the sheep­skin with news­pa­pers, but be­cause the lat­ter is not durable, Ma­hali is forced to use the pelt de­spite the dis­com­fort and its un­pleas­ant smell which draws un­savoury re­marks from her class­mates.

Her teacher, Retšelisit­soe Masilo, sym­pa­thises with Ma­hali as he does with many of her school­mates who find them­selves in the same predica­ment be­cause of ex­treme poverty.

Mr Masilo speaks of Ma­hali’s dilemma as if it is but an ex­tract from a novel be­cause it is hard to be­lieve this could be hap­pen­ing in the 21st cen­tury.

“Men­strual hy­giene is a very big is­sue not only at Bo­bete Pri­mary School but the whole area. Girls at Marumo Pri­mary School in the same area also face the same chal­lenges, which put their lives at risk,” Mr Masilo told the Le­sotho Times on the side­lines of Men­strual Hy­giene Day com­mem­o­ra­tions held in Mohlak­eng in Thaba-tseka last Satur­day.

Men­strual Hy­giene Day is cel­e­brated an­nu­ally on 28 May un­der the theme ‘ Men­stru­a­tion Mat­ters to Ev­ery­one, Ev­ery­where’ but this was the first time it was be­ing cel­e­brated in Le­sotho.

The com­mem­o­ra­tion was or­gan­ised by Le­sotho Red Cross So­ci­ety in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Wat­eraid Le­sotho, and saw 17 Thaba-tseka pri­mary and high school teach­ers dis­cussing men­strual hy­giene.

The teach­ers were asked to bring their stu­dents’ tes­ti­monies about the men­strual chal­lenges they face. The girls were not re­quired to give their names in the tes­ti­monies, and Ma­hali’s story was told by Mr Masilo. But the ac­count came as no sur­prise to many of the at­ten­dees be­cause they had sim­i­lar tales of hard­ships to tell.

Mr Masilo later ex­plained to the Le­sotho Times how the girls make the makeshift pads and why they end up not at­tend­ing classes dur­ing their men­strual pe­ri­ods.

“The sheep­skin is put in the sun to dry and once that process is com­plete, the girls take it and care­fully cut it in a pad-like shape.

“Once cut, they care­fully comb the wool to make it softer for their frag­ile pri­vate parts. But the edges of this piece of hide are so sharp and hard that they mer­ci­lessly cut the girls’ thighs, leav­ing them walk­ing with a limp which they try to hide to avoid be­ing laughed at,” Mr Masilo ex­plained.

This, he added, was one of the rea­sons the girls ended up miss­ing classes, com­pro­mis­ing their fu­ture in the process.

“Most of these girls from such needy back­grounds miss school ev­ery sin­gle month dur­ing their men­strual cy­cle be­cause of lack of pads.

“The girls also say be­cause they re­use the sheep­skin, it be­comes smelly and the other chil­dren start mak­ing fun of them at school. And to avoid this hu­mil­i­a­tion, they end up not go­ing to school dur­ing this time of the month,” Mr Masilo said.

Ac­cord­ing to Mr Masilo, some of the teenagers even use socks as san­i­tary pads.

“In some cases, the girls are told by their guardians to use socks, a cloth or news­pa­pers as pads. But be­cause they are not suit­able for such pur­poses, the girls com­plain that they will not be able to ab­sorb the blood, which some­times flows down their thighs caus­ing them great em­bar­rass­ment and at times, they de­velop a rash from fric­tion with the ma­te­rial, which makes it more dif­fi­cult for them to walk.”

The tes­ti­mony of a Khomo-li-ileng Pri­mary School stu­dent sounded sim­i­lar to that of Ma­hali, and fur­ther high­lighted the plight of these ado­les­cents.

“Be­cause of poverty, my mother can’t buy me pads and I use sheep­skin, but my teach- ers com­plain that the ma­te­rial has a bad odor and this em­bar­rasses me,” the stu­dent nar­rated in her tes­ti­mony.

“I fur­ther de­velop rash and can­not walk freely be­cause of the pain. I also miss school be­cause fel­low stu­dents laugh at me.

“The other chal­lenge I face is stay­ing in a sin­gle-roomed house and un­able to freely bath or change pads dur­ing my monthly pe­ri­ods.”

The other learn­ers com­plained that due to school toilets which have no doors, they are laughed at when chang­ing their crude pads.

Ac­cord­ing to Le­sotho Red Cross So­ci­ety Pro­ject Of­fi­cer for Bo­bete re­gion, Mookho Mafer­eka, last Satur­day’s dis­cus­sion was or­gan­ised af­ter it had been re­al­ized that teenage girls do not ob­serve sound hy­giene dur­ing their monthly pe­ri­ods.

“There is ab­so­lutely no men­strual hy­giene be­ing prac­ticed in the schools. For in­stance, if you look in al­most all the school toilets in the district, they are so full that the stu­dents stand on the seats while re­liev­ing them­selves. At times, they re­lieve them­selves just by the toi­let doors be­cause the seats would be filthy and you will find used pads ev­ery­where,” Ms Mafer­eka said.

She also said due to the filthy state of the toilets, some of the stu­dents re­lieve them­selves in the bush, putting them­selves in even greater dan­ger.

Ms Mafer­eka made ref­er­ence to a Marumo Pri­mary stu­dent who was nearly bit­ten by a snake while re­liev­ing her­self in a donga near the school.

“The school didn’t have toilets. The only toi­let Marumo Pri­mary School had was for teach­ers and it was in such poor state it could col­lapse anytime. So one day, the learn­ers went to their usual donga and while there, one of the girls was chased by a snake,” she said.

Ms Mafer­eka said the in­ci­dent prompted Le­sotho Red Cross So­ci­ety and non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion Wat­eraid Le­sotho to in­tro­duce a wa­ter, san­i­ta­tion and hy­giene pro­ject in Bo­bete in 2014.

The pro­ject has since built toilets for Bo­bete and Marumo pri­mary schools, among other devel­op­ments.

Mean­while, the teach­ers last Satur­day agreed it was time they came up with so­lu­tions to the prob­lems their stu­dents faced.

“Teach­ers are par­ents to these learn­ers. Ed­u­ca­tion is a three-legged pot and we all need to work to­gether to come up with so­lu­tions to these prob­lems,” said Paray High School teacher, ‘Mase­leka Mot­sumi.

Ms Mot­sumi said Paray High School was fac­ing a san­i­ta­tion prob­lem which could prove fa­tal if not ad­dressed as a mat­ter of ur­gency.

“The girls throw their pads in the toilets and this is a board­ing school. Imag­ine 600 learn­ers dis­pos­ing of pads ev­ery sin­gle month in the toi­let. The sit­u­a­tion is a health time­bomb wait­ing to ex­plode be­cause the toilets are full,” she said.

Ms Mot­sumi said it was dif­fi­cult for schools to build new toilets be­cause par­ents com­plain when stu­dents are asked to col­lect stones for the con­struc­tion of the fa­cil­i­ties.

“Par­ents com­plain that we waste their chil­dren’s learn­ing time but our work isn’t just to ed­u­cate these chil­dren in class. We also have a role to mold them and en­sure they are com­plete hu­man be­ings when they leave our school.”

She noted school au­thor­i­ties had tried to help chil­dren re­ceiv­ing M700 monthly al­lowances from govern­ment are bought ba­sic needs such as san­i­tary pads from this amount by their guardians to no avail.

“The money they re­ceive from govern­ment is mis­used by their guardians and they don’t even buy them ba­sics like pads. We have tried to take part of the money to buy them such items but the guardians re­fused to give it to us,” Ms Mot­sumi said.

She sug­gested the Min­istry of So­cial De­vel­op­ment should buy such items for ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the al­lowances to en­sure the well­be­ing of the chil­dren.

On her part, Thaba-tseka Bur­sar-ad­min­is­tra­tor Itume­leng Rapholo urged the teach­ers to sub­mit a writ­ten re­quest to her of­fice de­tail­ing these prob­lems.

“I don’t think the of­fice will have any prob­lem with this be­cause at the end of the day, the money is given to them to en­sure they have a bet­ter life,” Ms Rapholo said.

Ad­dress­ing the same meet­ing, Le­sotho Red Cross So­ci­ety Se­nior Wa­ter, San­i­ta­tion and Hy­giene (WASH) Of­fi­cer Tha­bang Toloane said the district risked ex­pos­ing the girls to dan­ger if their hy­giene was not taken se­ri­ously.

“If men­strual hy­giene is not prop­erly man­aged, this will lead to em­bar­rass­ment and phys­i­o­log­i­cal stress be­cause these girls can­not even leave their desks when they are in the class­room. The girls are forced to sit there the whole day, lead­ing to bad odor and pos­si­ble in­fec­tious dis­eases,” Mr Toloane said.

He fur­ther said lack of such hy­giene fa­cil­i­ties ex­pose women to vi­o­lence.

“At times, these peo­ple end up be­ing at­tacked on the way to and from these don­gas and we need to man­age men­strual hy­giene to en­sure they are pro­tected,” Mr Toloane said.

Mr Toloane said al­though Men­strual Hy­giene Man­age­ment (MHM) is a woman’s is­sue, ev­ery mem­ber of so­ci­ety must know about it to give the much needed sup­port.

MHM is de­fined as: “Women and ado­les­cent girls us­ing a clean men­strual man­age­ment ma­te­rial to ab­sorb and col­lect blood…that can be changed in pri­vacy as of­ten as nec­es­sary for the du­ra­tion of the pe­riod; us­ing soap and wa­ter for wash­ing the body as re­quired and hav­ing ac­cess to fa­cil­i­ties to dis­pose of used men­strual man­age­ment ma­te­ri­als”

Min­istry of Gen­der, Youth, Sports and Recre­ation Prin­ci­pal District Gen­der Of­fi­cer, Ntaoleng Mafisa, said govern­ment was fully aware that teenage girls in the area faced men­strual man­age­ment chal­lenges.

This, she said, was com­pro­mis­ing govern­ment ef­forts to en­sure more such chil­dren had ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion.

“Be­cause of this, we are writ­ing pro­pos­als for dif­fer­ent fac­to­ries to freely do­nate left­over cloth for the min­istry to pro­duce wash­able san­i­tary tow­els for girls to stay in school and make their monthly pe­ri­ods more bear­able,” Ms Mafisa said.

Wash­able pads are pieces of cloth worn to ab­sorb the men­strual flow dur­ing a woman’s pe­riod. They are reusable fem­i­nine hy­giene prod­ucts, and an al­ter­na­tive to dis­pos­able san­i­tary nap­kins or reusable men­strual cups.

They are less ex­pen­sive than dis­pos­able pads and en­vi­ron­ment friendly.

In coun­tries such as South Africa, Malawi and Zam­bia, women still use reusable pads. Prior to the in­tro­duc­tion of these re­cy­clable pads, women in these coun­tries used to re­sort to either stay­ing in their rooms dur­ing men­stru­a­tion or us­ing haz­ardous items such as news­pa­pers, sheep­skins and dis­posed ce­ment bags.

Dur­ing last Satur­day’s meet­ing, the teach­ers agreed to start or­ga­niz­ing ac­tiv­i­ties such as con­certs and sell­ing veg­eta­bles to raise funds and buy pads for the needy stu­dents.

“Where pos­si­ble, school bud­gets must ac­com­mo­date the pur­chase of pads as part of first aid kit to help school­girls, es­pe­cially those ex­pe­ri­enc­ing men­stru­a­tion for the first time,” said one of the teach­ers.

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