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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 unsavory 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 teachers 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 time-bomb 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,” Mr Toloane said.
“The girls are forced to sit there the whole day, leading to bad odor and possible infectious diseases.”
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.