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State should waive taxes on sanitary pads

In many places in Kenya, communities continue to downgrade the multiplier effect of educating girls, with as many as one in 10 adolescent girls missing school and eventually dropping out due to menstruation-related issues.

Figures from Kenya’s Ministry of Education show that a girl in primary school loses 18 learning weeks out of 108 weeks in a year during her menses. Within four years of high school, the same girl loses 156 learning days, equivalent to almost 24 weeks of learning.

The beneficial link between female education and lifetime health has never been in doubt; a better-educated girl takes better control of her life. She has healthier and fewer children.

Moreover, educated women participate in the labour market and eventually lift households out of poverty, with these benefits transmitting across generations.

Conversely, low education, poor health and nutrition have a magnified impact on the next generation as malnourished girls become mothers at higher risk of maternal mortality, and of bearing low birth-weight babies.

One of the reasons the benefits to society of educated girls are not accruing is because communities have been slow in removing manacles such as the inaccessibility of sanitary protection, the social taboos related to menstruation, and the culture of silence that surrounds menstruation, especially in schools.

The Government is allocating ever more resources towards providing sanitary towels in schools. While the allocation to the Ministry of Education to purchase the towels in 2011 was Sh340 million, the current financial year’s allocation is Sh0.4 billion.

Daily wage

While this is commendable, the Government must act upon the 2013 resolution by the East African Legislative Assembly urging partner states to waive taxes on sanitary pads so as to increase their availability and affordability for young girls.

Currently, a pack of sanitary pad costs about Sh75, which is roughly half the daily wage of an unskilled worker in Kenya. A tax waiver would significantly bring down the cost.

We need to begin to see it as a violation of basic human rights when girls stay away from school because they fear the shame attributed to their menstruation or because they do not have the means to maintain a healthy hygiene.

For a phenomenon that societies know will repeat itself unfailingly every month, the prevarication in developing concrete responses is very disappointing.

The new Sustainable Development Goal’s target 6.2 provides reason for optimism, recognising as it does the need to provide “adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all” with “special attention to the needs of women and girls”.

As we celebrate the New Year, the best gift we can give our girls is an action-plan-backed resolution that this will no longer be their lot. Sanitary pads or menstrual cups must be priced reasonably.

Our girls must no longer continue using old rags, towels, paper from their school books or even dirt or leaves to manage their bleeding.

Besides the obvious reproductive tract-related risks those methods present, these humiliating measures also mean that girls are unable to go about their daily lives.

Menstruation must stop being treated with silence and as a taboo topic. Many communities view menstrual blood as unclean and harmful, thus limiting adolescent girls’ access to relevant and important information about their bodies.

School-based sexual education programmes need to teach adolescent girls about puberty and menstrual hygiene.

These can be linked to other age-appropriate instruction about the risks of early marriage and preventing pregnancy, coupled with other life-skill–building exercises to help them negotiate healthy adolescence.

There’s no force more powerful for transforming a society than an educated girl. Any steps taken to eliminate circumstances that keep girls out of school can only be beneficial to our collective future.

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