At GS Busigari, a mixed primary-secondary, located in rural Cyanzarwe sector, Rubavu district, western Rwanda, it is around 11am. It is break time, marked by the usual deafening noise as students play in the large compound.
But for one 12year-old girl, it is not a good day, as she sleeps on a bed inside a secluded well-kept room. The teenager is going through her monthly menstrual cycle, according to a teacher on duty, who regularly comes to check on the girl.
Negative societal beliefs about menstruation, contributes to restrictions women and girls face during vaginal bleeding, and some of those restrictions are self-imposed such as fear to participate in activities like school or athletics. The abdominal pains that come with the cycle, also require that girls often have to stay away.
Globally, school-going girls and young women face many barriers to safe, hygienic, and dignified menstruation.
At least 20 percent of schoolgirls in Rwanda, particularly in rural areas, miss up to 50 days of school per year, according a 2020 study, also highlighted by the World Bank.
At primary level schooling, which runs from grade 4 to grade 6, the number of such days is about 540 days or one and a half.
Activist and founder of FreeThePeriod campaign, Isabella Akaliza noted in her 2019 case study that these absences represent a potential loss of GDP of US$215 per woman each year – a total of US$115 million per year in Rwanda.
These numbers may be big and worrying but are a better state of affairs prevailing in Rwanda, than in many other regions. Part of the reason for the improvements is an innovative scheme called Girls’ Room or Icyumba cy’umukobwa.
Shangazi, the Auntie
In 2012, government introduced the scheme, which obligated all schools from primary to university to have this room. As a standard requirement, outlined in 2021 ministerial order, the room is supposed to be equipped with sanitary pads, towels, painkillers, a bed, water, and soap among other hygiene tools.
The school must also assign a particular female member of staff called “Shangazi” or Aunt, who is always available. Their role is take care of the girls, speak to them about any concerns and engage with the school in case the matter needs taking up.
To achieve this policy, schools found different ways of getting the room. Some built their own, others got funding from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as CARITAS, while other schools just set aside a room which was already being used for other activities.
By the end of 2021, education ministry data shows that 2,046 primary schools had a safe room for girls across the country, representing 55.4 percent of all primary schools in Rwanda.
With regards to secondary schools, 1,505 secondary schools had the room, or 80.5% per cent of all secondary schools in the country. As for TVET level, 262 (76.2%) schools had by then established the girls’ safe room, of the total 331 TVETs that were available.
The Chronicles team visited two primary school and three secondary schools randomly selected from two districts, Rubavu and Rutsiro.
At GS Busigari, the mixed school in Rubavu district, the administration was very enthusiastic to take us around to visit the room. They said the room is also used by the girls when they aren’t feeling well, even if they are not in the menstrual month.
“Before this room was set up, absenteeism and dropouts among girls was such a big issue. And as teachers we understood the situation but couldn’t do anything about it,“ said Jean Marie Vianney Bizimungu, a senior teacher at the school.
He added: “As you have noted, this is not an urban area. So most of our students here come from poor families where it is very difficult to afford pads. Today, there is no excuse for a girl to miss school unless it has to do with other issues.”
At GS Shwemu I, also a mixed primary-secondary school located in Rugerero Sector of Rubavu district, we find Marie Chantal Gizayino who is tasked with the ‘Shangazi’ role. She takes us around to the Girl’s Room. It has a double-sized bed, neatly organised and decorated with some drawings hung on the wall as explanatory materials for girls who access the room.
We found Alice Iraguha, 16, and in Senior One (S1), had earlier that day used the room. Though shy to speak about her experience, her mood is upbeat and appears comfortable to be at school.
Ange Mukantwari, a Senior Six (S6) student told us: “At the shop near my home, the pad costs a lot of money. I don’t think I can be able to get it whenever I urgently needed one. I don’t have to worry about coming to school because I know I can rush to the room to clean myself.”.
A local NGO Health Development Initiative (HDI) in partnership with UNFPA have been dealing with the issue of what they refer to as “period poverty”, using the case of Rwamagana district in eastern Rwanda.
The partners reported widely on the issue in their October 2022 assessment, where they interviewed a section of girls on challenges they do encounter to access sanitary products.
Their report says period poverty ‘is still a challenge. Many girls, especially those in rural areas, continue to grapple with”.
According to the World Bank, about 500 million women and girls globally don’t have access to adequate facilities for menstrual hygiene management (MHM).
The World Bank suggests that to tackle this issue, which a lot of women and girls are facing, there should be free distribution of menstrual products or at subsidized prices for low-income groups, and have free access to those sanitary materials in public places like schools.
Private schools left out
In Rwanda, government through the education ministry has a budgetary allocation for stocking Girls’ Rooms. The local government ministry through the districts is supposed to mobilize schools to ensure they have the room and it is stocked. However, officials at education ministry were unwilling to share specific budget details for this program.
Though the Girl’s Room is mandatory for all schools, the government funds the restocking of the supplies in government-aided schools.
The national policy is that allocation of how much a school gets for restocking the room, depends on how many girls it has. One of the schools we toured said they received Rwf 150,000 ($148) for the year 2022. The money is supposed to cover restocking for the whole year.
The school head said the money is too little as much more is spent. Thus, they have to spend more from their own money. Some schools ask parents, privately, to include money for pads on fees. Some parents do it without being asked. Some schools depend on NGOs for pads and other supplies.
Private schools are expected to add the cost of the Room on the school fees (tuition) paid by parents. With parents publicly denouncing any fee increments, as observed on social media and live radio talk shows, it is a challenge for schools to pile expenses on the parents.
At GS Busigari, the mixed school, school officials said some times there is no money to pay for new supplies for the Room.
“We still have issues of inadequate funding to buy the materials,” said Delphine Nyirakobanza, GS Busigari accountant.
“We have a bathroom for girls but there is no running water,” says another teacher.
The education ministry circular on Girl’s Room says funding is allocated in accordance with the number of present female students at any school across the country “as well as available budget”. The ministry also says it regularly conducts monitoring and evaluation on the standards of girl’s rooms, and whether that budget is used accordingly.
The government schools also were adamant to discuss the amount of funding they get from the government for Girls’ Room. The schools that allowed us to visit their rooms said they also need more than one room, as sometimes there is two or more girls who need the facility at the same time. In a day, about three to six girls can use the room.
One of two private schools we visited declined to allow us to tour their premises. The other school let us into the compound but couldn’t take us to where the room is located, a clear indication they didn’t have it. Both schools confirmed that they do not get money from the government for the program and have to add it on the term’s tuition fees.
Campaigners have not relented on pushing government to bring down the retail cost of menstrual pad. Despite the scrapping of VAT on the pads in 2018, the prices of pads remain high, ranging between Rwf 800-1,500 ($0.80-1.50). Campaigners want all forms of taxes levied on the pads to be scrapped completely.
Though the Girls’ Room may have brought down absenteeism and dropouts from school, other factors that cause these phenomenon need to be dealt with as a whole. Latest data shows that primary schools drop out for female stands is at 6.8% in the country, while at 8.1% in Secondary Schools.
The Education Ministry recently announced that it will continue to expand access to Girl’s Rooms, with plans to establish 1, 644 girl’s rooms in the coming years so as to fulfill the present gap in some schools across the country.
This story was produced as part of Science Africa 2022-2023 Solutions Journalism (SoJo) Newsrooms Training Program.