Why Are Slum Girls Missing 36 days of School Annually?

Posted on October 07, 2013, by Jane Otai, Jhpiego

Lucy, a 12-year-old girl at one of the many informal schools in Nairobi’s Mathare slum, stays home when she has her monthly period because she is worried she won’t be able to contain the bleeding and will bring shame on herself. She is just one of thousands of girls from Nairobi’s sprawling slums — and Kenya's impoverished rural areas — who miss at least 36 days of school a year because they don’t have access to affordable sanitary protection.

Girls like Lucy are already at a huge disadvantage when it comes to education. Families often give preference to boys if only one child can attend school. Girls often have to do chores and have less time to study. So missing more than a month of school throughout the year only compounds the list of challenges they already face.  If a girl has been unable to keep up with the class work and fails her exams, it could spell the end of her education because her family most likely would not be able to afford to pay for her to repeat a class.

There is only one government school in Mathare and two in Kibera, a vast slum on the opposite side of Nairobi, and because they are subsidized, they are heavily oversubscribed. But they do manage to distribute some free sanitary pads.

However, the informal private schools that take in the bulk of slum children do not benefit from this government project or the occasional visits from volunteers or celebrities who hand out sanitary towels. So Lucy and the other girls make do with everything from pieces of blankets and old clothes to chicken feathers. When she first got her period, Lucy didn’t want to burden her mother because she knew the family couldn’t afford to buy her the pads, so she began tearing off pieces of her foam mattress to use as a substitute. Now her mattress is nearly hollow and very uncomfortable.

Growing up as a Kenyan girl, I also experienced the monthly trials. But I had hoped that with the now widespread availability of sanitary products in shops and frequent radio and TV advertisements about their benefits these Kenyan girls would somehow be better off.


Jane Otai at the Korogocho informal settlement, a slum in Nairobi where Jhpiego provides assistance.


Unfortunately, the poverty that forces a girl’s mother to choose between buying vegetables for the whole family or sanitary pads for her daughter has not gone away. And then there are the men who seduce girls with the offer of pads in exchange for sex; some even tell unknowing girls that having sex is the only way to deal with menstrual pain.

In a country that seeks to become Africa’s Silicon Savannah and build a vast technopolis in the next 15 years, where the cost of a coffee in an upmarket café could purchase a packet of sanitary pads, it should be possible to set up artisanal industries to produce low-cost products or even a fund to help defray the costs of the plastic caps that can be re-used for at least 10 years.

Such an effort could go hand in hand with reproductive health education where girls are taught about expected body changes as they mature, the risks of HIV and the consequences of having unprotected sex as well as many other reproductive health subjects to help them make informed decisions.

I’ve seen firsthand the amazing changes in the life of a girl like Lucy when she has access to sanitary towels and pain relievers. She no longer has to fear cutting her education — and her life — short. She becomes more confident, is able to attend all her classes and participate more meaningfully in school and community activities. And she doesn’t have to pull apart her mattress or pluck a chicken any more.

Jane Otai is a senior program advisor for Jhpiego, a non-profit global health affiliate of Johns Hopkins University. Currently she is working on the Tupange initiative, an urban reproductive health project focused on improving the health of women and families in the urban slums of Kenya. Otai is a 2013 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.