For girls and women in Ireland, it is impossible to imagine attending school as an adolescent without the basic necessities of underwear and sanitary towels, but this is the reality for many girls in Kajiado County, in Kenya, home to the Maasai people, a semi-nomadic pastoralist community.
Menstruation without these items means many girls have no choice but to stay at home from school for 4-5 days per month. The impact of such frequent absenteeism results in lower educational achievements and often leads to girls dropping out of school before completing the KCPE – the Kenyan Primary Certificate.
Aidlink and the Girl Child Network have worked in partnership on this issue for 10 years, creating girl-friendly learning environments for some of the most isolated and disadvantaged school children in Kenya. Together they developed the School Sanitation Improvement Project, which is now operational in almost 100 primary schools throughout Kajiado.
The project sets out to ensure primary school-children, especially girls, are enrolled in school, stay in school, perform well and continue to secondary and higher institutions of learning. A central part of this involves tackling one of the ongoing obstacles to keeping girls in education in Kenya, that of menstruation.
For most girls, getting their first period is often a trying time, but for girls in rural Kenya it can mean an end to education. Aidlink and the Girl Child Network’s project improves the school learning environment by providing water tanks, girl-friendly latrines, sanitary towels, underwear and the delivery of sexual maturation training.
Additionally, FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) is a core cultural practice among the Maasai people and is considered a pre-curser for marriage. For Maasai girls who stay in school, FGM and early marriage may be delayed, but poor performance and absenteeism due to menstruation often leads parents to disregard the benefits of education. Without school, girls as young as nine are subjected to FGM and subsequent childhood marriage. In times of hardship and drought, girls are traded as brides in exchange for livestock.
Although illegal in Kenya, FGM remains a cultural rite of passage for many traditional Massai communities, but progress is being made. In schools where the School Sanitation Improvement Project is not operating, FGM rates are around 73 per cent among Maasai communities. In schools where it is operating FGM rates have decreased to 62 per cent, and continue to decline.