Sunday, November 8, 2009

Lack of Sanitary Pads is a Threat to the Health of Kenya as a Whole

The hype about how brilliant the introduction of 'free' primary education has been in Kenya continues six years on but the reality is that most parents who couldn't afford primary education before 2003 still can't afford it. The hidden costs are endless and include levies for parent teacher associations, uniforms and overpriced books, equipment, 'extra' tuition, etc. A colleague recently pointed out to me that parents need to pay for their child's desk every year. There must be quite a surplus of desks in schools by now.

While enrollment figures are high for state schools, they have dropped in many private schools and the figures for attendance and completion, even of primary school, are not so brilliant. Numbers of girls completing primary school and going on to secondary school are particularly poor. There are many reasons for girls not completing their education, including the belief that as girls will marry into another family, it is not economical to 'water ones neighbour's fields'.

But a study in Uganda suggests that many girls are dropping out of school as soon as they start menstruating. Schools are not equipped to deal with girls once they start menstruating, apparently. Lack of separate sanitary facilities for girls, and even lack of water, mean that they will often stay at home, either for the duration of their period or even for good.

The extremely high cost of sanitary pads mean that they are inaccessible to many girls. They have to use substitutes or stay at home. To put it in perspective, ten of the cheapest sanitary pads cost more than several days worth of the staple ground maize for a large family. The commonly advertised branded versions cost twice or three times as much and, because one or two of them are sometimes given out as promotional 'gifts', some people think they must always use this version to be really safe.

As well as having to teach sex education without talking about sex, teachers are also in the position where they are usually not trained to include classes about menstruation, either. Teaching about the whole field of sex, sexuality, reproduction, sexual health and sanitation is often considered to lead to immoral behaviour in young people. This can be blamed on taboo or cultural considerations but in fact, it often has more to do with political and religious leadership and funding sources for sex education and education as a whole.

In the end, large numbers of girls with little or no education means that large numbers of children will, in the future, also be brought up with little or no education, knowledge of sex or reproduction or even with the level of empowerment needed to change anything for the better. Continuing gender imbalances mean continuation of the status quo. That's a status quo where much of the population will never be able to attain a decent standard of living, while the more privileged continue to enjoy the great wealth that exists in Kenya (despite the best attempts of colonials, neo-colonials, multinationals and other assorted leeches).

The introduction of 'free' primary education was a little like some of the other initiatives that only aim to tackle one or two headline indicators. (In fact, any of the millennium development goals (MDG) would be additional examples.) School fees were abolished but immediately replaced with costs that mean parents still have to pay de facto fees. There are still far too few teachers and classrooms in many areas to provide decent levels of education.

When it comes to education relating to sex, reproduction, health, sanitation or anything like that, few teachers have been trained to provide these. And there is little to be gained from health and sanitation education when the health and sanitation facilities, even reliable supplies of clean water, are not available to the majority.

Successive governments, along with those who dream up international 'initiatives' don't seem to have noticed that basic needs are basic for the very reason that, without any one of them, people's standard of living is compromised. Children who have little or no food for much of the time will have retarded growth and mental development, poor health and a short life. Lack of sanitary facilities reduce health but this also reduces access to education and the efficacy of education. Basic needs are connected to each other, so you can't just make a list and tick them off as you create an 'initiative' that relates to each one.



Kirsty said...

hear hear - and lack of sanitary protection makes me cringe (so does lack of many things, but this strikes a chord) I guess reuseable solutions are limited due to lack of clean water?

Simon said...

Hi Kirsty, thanks for your comment. Actually, we are looking into reusable solutions. You're right, there is a problem with lack of access to clean water, but there should be ways around that. In fact the biggest problem with reusable sanitary pads is that people here are not too impressed with the idea and think they are very much second best. But we'll work on it and hope for the best. Take care. S

Claire said...

No wonder people think they are second best, it sounds like companies making branded disposable ones are busy ensuring people think so with promotions and marketing!

Simon said...

Hi Claire, thanks for your comment. Exactly, people are very heavily influenced by ads and brands. Branded disinfectant and disinfectant soaps are sold on the basis that your family's health depends on your using some popular brand. People even put disinfectant into drinking water, in the belief that this protects them from water borne diseases. Aside from the disgusting taste and the long term effects of drinking the stuff, I doubt if it has any health benefits.

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