When Deputy Principal Rose was a student, there was a week every month that she dreaded: the period every twenty-eight days or so when she had her period. A keen student with an innate love of learning, she loathed this forced truancy.Without menstrual management support, Rose could see no other option but to wait out her period at home.
Two thousand and five — the year the war for independence from Sudan ended — was the year Rose finished her studies. She graduated from university in Khartoum and returned to her hometown of Wau, now in South Sudan. There, she became a teacher and later the Deputy Principal of the 200-pupil strong Mbili Girls Secondary School, known locally as “Umbili Girls”.
Many of the girls in Rose’s school face the same issues she did back in her own schooldays.One student at the school said that when she starts menstruating, she would “ask the teacher for permission to go home.” And then, she would stay put for a day or so until her period was no longer so heavy, making it possible to go back to school.
“When I’m at home, I cannot read or study because I have domestic work to do,” said another girl student. She continued on to say that if she asks for time off from household chores, then she will not be given money for candles, further hindering her studies. All her classmates agreed that when they have access to basic hygiene products like pads, soap and buckets, they can stay in school during their periods.
“Before, there was no proper place to wash pads, so the teachers and I would have to send girls home,” said Deputy Principal Rose. A non-governmental organization (NGO) constructed a private room at the school for girl students to wash or change their sanitary products.
With training and support from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the school set up a student hygiene club. The club helps students promote simple but vital hygiene practices throughout the school. As part of its activities, IOM held menstrual management training for girl students and distributed dignity kits. The kits included reusable pads, underwear, soap, a kanga (multi-purpose material, typically used as clothing), and a solar torch to help the girls easily read at night.
“There is more awareness today and teachers can offer help,” said Rose, more optimistic about the current situation for girls, who experience their periods at school. Such kits not only help girls stay in school but go through their monthly cycle with more dignity.Another challenge the students were facing was the lack of latrines. There was only one functioning latrine at the school.
Umbili Girls was originally a girls’ school with 207 students but, due to the lack of teachers in Wau, two or three schools were temporarily combined for Senior Four (the final stage of secondary school) classes. Umbili Girls was the largest and most strategically located of the schools, which means that, for the moment, boys are part of the student body. This made the latrine situation for the pupils even worse; now boy and girl students and men and women teachers were relying on one latrine during school hours. Many of the girls were not comfortable with this arrangement.
Earlier this year, IOM’s water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) team assessed the sanitation situation in multiple schools in Wau, comparing the state of each school’s latrines and the number of people who used them. Umbili Girls was deemed to a priority with far more than 200 people with access to only one functioning latrine. The WASH team verified with Wau’s Directorate for Education to ensure that no other organization had plans to support the school in this way, avoiding duplication of work.Employing local labourers, IOM engineers oversaw the rehabilitation of a block of latrines (eight stances), which had fallen into disrepair, forcing the school population to share what was meant to be the teachers’ latrine.
“During our assessment, we made sure that the existing latrines could be rehabilitated; we checked that the pits were ok and how many metres were left before they would become full,” said Grace Keji, IOM South Sudan Assistant WASH Engineer. “Then, we used the assessment report to prepare a Bills of Quantity (BoQ), which is a list detailing the materials, like cement, needed for the rehabilitation. Following procurement of the materials, we got to work fixing the floors, walls, roof and ventilation. We also constructed three handwashing facilities, which are vital, as good handwashing practices play a key role in reducing diarrhoeal diseases,” added Keji.
The team also constructed a privacy wall around the teachers’ latrine, as everyone was using it during the rehabilitation works. Now, there is a specific latrine stance for people living with disabilities, one for women teachers and six for girl students — all in the rehabilitated block. And there is another existing stance located away from the girls and women’s latrines, used only by men teachers and boy students. This is a temporary arrangement until more teachers can be hired in the boma [administrative division] and the boys can go back to their own school. But while they are attending Umbili Girls, the hygiene club has capitalized on their presence and engaged them in activities.
The latrines and handwashing facilities were completed in September and officially handed over to the community. Representatives from IOM, Wau’s Directorate for Education, the school administration and school hygiene club attended the handover ceremony. IOM also supplied the school with cleaning supplies.Following, the completion of the latrines, IOM turned its attention to the school’s inadequate borehole. During the following month of October, IOM finished the rehabilitation of the borehole, ensuring there was access to clean and safe water at the school.
According to UNICEF, the “current trend in female enrolment [in South Sudan] is particularly disconcerting with the Gender Parity Index (GPI) going from 0.75 at primary to 0.57 at the secondary level.” GPI is a socioeconomic index measuring the relative access to education of girls and boys.Helping young girls feel comfortable enough to stay in school is extremely important.
As one of the students said, “We must study to become independent because there are certain things you must do for yourself,” and as another said, “School is very important because it makes you mentally happy. When you study, life becomes easier; you can work hard for what you want.”IOM’s support to Umbili Girls in Wau was funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of the “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Response and Prevention of Gender Based Violence (GBV)” project.