For young Brenda Kufakunesu (12), going to school during her monthly period was torture.
Since her parents could not afford to buy her sanitary pads all the time, she sometimes had to use pieces of cloth cut from her old dresses.
But the risk of that piece of cloth falling or moving to an awkward position was very high. In the event that this happened, the whole school, particularly the boys, would make fun of her for a good four days!
In the unfortunate event that she soiled herself, she would have another burden of trying to find water to clean herself before anyone else noticed and made her the brunt of every joke that week.
But because her school, Chivaka Primary School, is located in one of the driest parts of Bikita district, water was a scarce commodity, even with a borehole already in place.
“The school borehole had no water so when we had our period, we would ask for a bucket from the female teachers and go to the nearby stream to get water to wash our hands or clean ourselves if there was need,” Brenda said.
“Sometimes we even had to go to Chivaka River which is far from the school. But then by the time you get to the stream, the boys would have seen you and they would know why you were going to the stream during class time.”
Brenda’s problem is one shared by many other girls in most rural schools.
During their menstrual cycle, girls have specific needs and requirements in terms of their hygiene.
Without water, getting a period becomes a painful experience which strips them of their dignity.
The majority of these girls then opt to stay at home for the duration of their period, missing a good number of classes in the process.
But Brenda and her friends no longer have to endure the humiliation of walking long distances just to get water to clean themselves during their mensuration periods.
Their school received a US$3 500 grant under the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Schools Improvement Grant programme being implemented by the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The programme is being funded by UK AID and KFW Development Bank (Germany) to strengthen school environments, particularly in marginalised areas to allow for equitable and sustainable access to WASH infrastructure and services.
Using the grant, Chivaka Primary School installed electricity, a water pump, tank and pipes to feed the taps that were installed in the school yard and at the teacher’s quarters.
“We had a dire situation here. Although we already had a borehole, it would break down from time to time and then water became a problem,” said the school head Mr Tapiwa Manyama. a
“This area is very dry since we are in region five.
“Our borehole is about 36 metres deep but during the dry seasons the borehole would break down because it used the manual pump. This meant we had no water to drink, wash hands or clean the toilets.
“Every time the borehole broke down, we would ask for water from a well close to the school but after two visits they would tell us to stop coming.
“We also had another source of water about a kilometre from here where we would ask for water for our teachers and learners but then we would get time slots to fetch water each day.”
At some point, the school would ask the learners to bring small containers of water with the older ones carrying at least 5 litres daily.
When Chivaka River was flowing, learners would go and fetch water from there to clean the toilets and other uses.
“Unfortunately, I cannot confirm if we had girls who missed classes because of this water situation because it was not reported.
“Naturally we would have absentees and a reason would be given but then the girls might dodge giving the real reason why they did not attend classes,” Mr Manyama said.
“With the coming in of this project, we now have adequate water in terms of drinking, sanitation, Covid prevention and other areas.
“We were intending to have another tap in the garden but we realised that the amount of water generated was a bit low so we only installed pipes up to the garden. But we are using buckets to water our tomatoes, onions, carrots and vegetables which we sell to the communities and the teachers. Last term we had chickens which we reared using that water.”
The water caters for 406 learners and 11 teachers and some of the villagers nearby.
Mr Manyama said there were plans to install another tap outside the school yard for the community to access drinking water.
Access to clean water and sanitation is captured in Sustainable Development Goal 6. It is also enshrined in the National Development Strategy 1 (NDS1).
Government is also committed to providing sanitary wear for all underprivileged children.
Since 2019, girls have been receiving free sanitary wear under the initiative which is being financed through the National Budget.
Brenda said girls at Chivaka had received 10 reusable pads and a pack of disposable pads each.
Coupled with the availability of water, they can now endure their periods with dignity.
“We are happy we got these pads because now we don’t drop the cloths that we used during menstruation,” she said.
Another learner Joyleen Masaina said the sanitary wear initiative was helping a lot of girls.
“The reusable pads can be used over and over so my parents do not have to buy pads every month. I am just grateful that I no longer miss class because of the period. And in the case that I need to wash my pad, the water is close to the teachers’ houses so my period is my secret,” she said.
The challenge of girls missing school during their periods is widespread.
At Ngaone Primary School in Chipinge district, teacher-in-charge Mrs Sophie Sithole said many girls would miss classes in the past.
“This is a very big challenge. The girls would miss class, particularly if they soiled themselves, they would be absent for the next three or four days because the boys would be mocking them. But because they are now getting pads, it is helping them to not skip classes,” she said.
“We are also giving them sexual reproductive health education to help them understand when they need to approach a teacher for assistance. So now if she knows that she is about to start her period she can get pads from a teacher.”
Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education spokesperson Mr Taungana Ndoro said Government and its partners were committed to supplying water to all schools.
He said the WASH-SIG programme was bringing joy to many rural schools and the communities surrounding them.
“This programme has gone a long way in alleviating the water challenges particularly in those very dry areas where our schools are located. One of our policies is that every school should have a water facility within the school premises,” he said.
“Through such programmes, we now have a few schools that still have a challenge where teachers and learners have to go outside of the school premises to access water but we are getting to that target and these are the schools that we are trying to fund.
“The Government is also doing all it can to provide sanitary wear particularly for schools in rural and remote areas where parents cannot afford to buy sanitary wear.”