In Rwanda’s Kibyagira secondary school, the Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) room built by SNV contributed to the reduction of schoolgirl absenteeism. Almost immediately, the school leadership ramped up its roll-out of structural improvements and mechanisms in support of menstruating schoolgirls. Today, Kibyagira’s schoolgirls – who make up half the student body's population – are now practising proper MHH with dignity.
With funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, SNV in Rwanda – as part of the WASH First project – constructed an MHH room that has brought much pride to schoolgirls and the rest of the school’s population. The MHH room is not your simple room. It is complete with a bedroom, a toilet, and a shower room for bathing. Adjacent to the structure is a veranda for schoolgirls to congregate, a rainwater harvesting system to store water in case of water shortage, and an incinerator to burn used pads.
Going above and beyond
Though facilities and structures provide respite, they need to be maintained and cared for so that they continue to deliver to their purpose. Beyond making sanitary pads available, the MHH room is also equipped with cleaning materials such as a dust bin, mop, buckets and jerrycans. Shelves and hangers are found in the room for the proper storage of cleaning materials, household items such as bed sheets and curtains, and soaps and lotions.
A school hygiene club was constituted. The club’s members are not simply responsible for the hygienic maintenance of the MHH room. Together, they also carry out menstrual health and hygiene communication activities in the school and the surrounding community.
The not-so-distant past
Not so long ago, it was the norm for menstruating schoolgirls to skip school for seven days. This practice did not only lead to high rates of absenteeism but also had an impact on girls’ overall performance and confidence levels.
A structured response to menstrual health and hygiene was missing in many schools. In Kibyagira, menstruating schoolgirls were advised to use the school accountant’s office space to change their sanitary napkins. Besides not offering the proper hygiene standards, the office space was tiny and could only accommodate one schoolgirl at a time. Sanitary napkins and pads, soaps, lotion, and other hygienic materials were not available. There was no water supply in the room. Nor were there shower rooms and toilets. For menstruating girls, especially for those who occasionally suffered from menstrual cramps, the long walk to access a toilet was unbearable.
The present and the future of MHH
After delivering the modern MHH room, many positive changes were observed.
- Schoolgirl absenteeism has fallen thanks to the inviting facility and atmosphere provided by the MHH room. The room is also located in a private and safe place thereby increasing the comfort and willingness of schoolgirls to use it.
- The school’s leadership has now made it their business to care for schoolgirls when they are menstruating.
- Based on the accounts of the school’s leadership, school performance of schoolgirls increased.
- Trained members of the school hygiene club are now known drivers of sanitation and hygiene behavioural change in the school and the community.
- Boys started receiving education on menstruation to ‘break the silence and stigma’ and to eliminate potential harassment and humiliation of schoolgirls.
- Use of the MHH room is being tracked with the help of a logbook. Whenever a student uses the room, they are requested to log in and log out so that the school leadership is able to identify schoolgirls who need to be encouraged to use the MHH room. For heavy users, information from the logbook could help the school leadership identify who among the student body will most likely need medical attention in connection to their menstrual health.
Facilitating the menstrual health and hygiene of schoolgirls remains a challenge in many schools in Rwanda. When left unaddressed, there are very real consequences on schoolgirls’ academic performance and self-confidence. When people – in this case, schoolgirls – are not given the tools to reach their fullest potential as human beings 'the individual' and the whole of society miss out on development opportunities. MHH needs to be given high priority by all actors in the WASH sector, including international organisations, national development partners, responsible line ministries and local government.
Photos: Images of the MHH room in Kibyagira secondary school by SNV in Rwanda [Banner: structure and entrance with veranda next to rainwater harvesting tank | In-text: bedroom/resting place and toilet facility with cleaning materials].
For more information, contact: Tessema Gettachew, WASH Sector Leader in Rwanda by email