LACK OF SANITARY PADS STILL DRIVES GIRLS OUT OF SCHOOL
Juba Monitor reporter Sheila Ponnie interviews a parent at Gorom
Camp on Monday .Photo: Eugine Byun
By Sheila Ponnie
For many school-going girls in refugee camps in South Sudan reaching puberty could spell the end of school.
Simply because when a girl begins her first period – it could mean that they are now ready to marry and bear children or they will stay away from school to avoid being shamed.
Many of them don’t even understand what is happening, because no one in their homes, including their mothers are able to explain what is going on or what it means. In many families menstruation is still a taboo subject.
Lona Kenya Santo is a tall, slim16-year-old student in Primary 6. Santo says the day before she started her periods she felt a headache but when she approached her mum for help, she ignored her. The next day she saw blood trickling down her one leg.
“I was not even sure of what was happening to me so I told my friend that I have a wound on my leg. She told me that it was not a wound, it is a period and I didn’t know what a period was,” she explained.
Some of the pupils at Gorom primary School worried about where
next to get sanitary pads for them.
Santo attends school at Gorom Refugee Camp, located about 26 kilometers from Juba. It is home to 2000 refugees from Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
She walks to school most days, except on the days when she is menstruating. “This thing” she says referring to her period, “happened to my friend one day. Her period come to her in school then, boys started laughing at her and then she started crying,” she said.
The camp has one school, Gorom Primary School, which accommodates more than 600 pupils, 320 of which are girls. Many of them don’t finish primary school.
A 2018 report by UNICEF found that due to the cultural stigma surrounding menstruation, one out of every 10 African adolescent girls will miss school due to their periods and the number is likely to be higher in South Sudan.
Paul Hillary, a social caseworker at Gorom says many parents are uncomfortable discussing menstruation with their daughters.
Parents like Abang Oleo, a 35-year-old mother of 5 children, 3 of which are girls. She lives with her children at the camp. Speaking through a translator she says menstruations are not a subject she discusses with her daughters.
“I have never spoken to my girls about periods, but I always assume that they have started their periods when they ask for money to go to Juba. Then, I end up thinking that maybe they have stared their periods,” Oleo said.
“We are doing our best to have a peer support group for girls at school so we can discuss such things,” he added, “there is a need for sensitization at the community level so the parents know very well that girl reproductive health education is very important for their future.”
20-year-old, Ajuiu Jamel Marco, is one of only four girls in primary eight at the school. She was more open about the shame girls experience at school when they are menstruating.
“Sometimes if you have your period and you don’t have these pads,” Ajuiu explains, “you will not be able to sit in a place where there are many people. You will fear to sit! Sometimes if you sit, your clothes will become dirty. Also, there are some people that have bad behavior, if they see that you have soiled your skirt then they will start laughing at you, especially the boys”.
Even for those parents and girls who can speak openly about periods, managing it can be difficult.
According to Girls’ Education South Sudan, a U.K. funded NGO working across the country, even if girls had access to sanitary products, they are costly.
One pack of sanitary pads usually costs more than 600 South Sudanese Pounds, and many families can barely afford it.
At the camp, UNHCR provides girls with “dignity kits” which contain five washable and renewable pads for girls and women. But because of budget limitations, they have not been able to supply more.
UNHCR spokesperson Eujin Byun says increasing humanitarian challenges around the world have made it difficult to meet the growing needs of women and children in refugee camps in the country.
“I appeal to the international community to keep supporting South Sudan, and the girls. Help them to continue their education because a lack of sanitary pads is one of the reasons that girls drop out of the school.”
Some even drop out of school completely, increasing the chance of early marriage and the challenges that come later in life, for girls who have no education. Byun stressed, that “education is a human right and the girl has a right to education, even in the refugee camp.”
UNESCO estimates that if all girls received secondary education, child marriage would decrease by almost two-thirds and 59% fewer girls would get pregnant in sub-Sahara Africa and south and west Asia.
A fact Ajuiu understand very well, “My message to them is let them study first. Let them not focus on the boys. They should keep their minds only on education because education is the light, education is the job. I want to encourage them to continue to study. So after that, they will have a better life.” She said.