Bringing dignity to the girls of Ndwedwe
The coming of age for a girl should not be a time to feel ashamed because of the change her body is going through. In rural communities across Africa, numerous studies have shown that a girl child can lose up to 500 school days during her high school career, because of a lack of access to basic water and sanitation.
But absenteeism, driven by a lack of adequate sanitation at schools that should offer a sense of privacy and dignity is not the only obstacle holding our girls back. In impoverished communities, the cost of sanitary towels is often beyond their reach, compromising health and hygiene.
One Voice South Africa (OVSA) a youth-based organisation that facilitates life skills and human rights based training for learners across 22 schools in KwaZulu-Natal, is no stranger to this problem. At Isifisosethu High School in Ndwedwe, a remote village situated deep in the hills above Stanger, learners are struggling to complete tOVSheir education in an area almost entirely devoid of infrastructure.
More than an hour north-west of Durban, the steep climb takes you beyond the thick fields of sugarcane and into sporadic forestry plantations that used to provide seasonal work. Instead, an increasing trend of eroded fields blanket the hillside where felled plantations are no longer being replanted. The forestry companies have pulled out and taken their jobs with them. The nearest shop is more than an hour’s walk and with little disposable income, it is only the essentials that are traded. At more than three times the price of a loaf of bread, sanitary towels are a luxury.
In a dilapidated classroom, a hot corrugated iron roof sags over a rough plastered room with empty window frames. A group of girls aged between 14 and 16 have gathered to share their stories on what it’s like to grow up in Ndwedwe. Each proudly holds a cotton bag that contains a supply of washable cotton sanitary pads and an information leaflet. These Dignity Dream packs have opened up a dialogue on a topic that is almost never discussed at home. “We don’t talk about such things with our parents. In our culture, when a girl has her period, she is looked upon with suspicion for maybe having given up her virginity and being unclean” explains one girl bravely.
The intervention is the result of the candid exchange that happens when One Voice programme officers build a relationship of trust with their young peers and discover the challenges learners may be facing. Topics such as personal hygiene and reproductive health are part of the Life Skills workshops delivered over a series of weeks by OVSA Programme Officers. But in poor rural communities such as Ndwedwe, the visible absence of adequate water and sanitation makes it near impossible to reinforce.
With the help of Oxfam Australia’s Southern Africa Office, A WASH Programme aimed at supporting rural communities to improve their water, sanitation and hygiene, has at least enabled OVSA to install a reticulated hand wash basin in both of the sanitation blocks. The number of toilets however is woefully inadequate with just 10 toilets serving nearly 420 learners. Water-borne sanitation is extremely rare in rural areas where pit latrines remain common place. In this isolated region, the toilet doors and locks have long since been stripped by vandals and girls have no privacy. “ I don’t like coming to school during my period because anyone can walk in on me,” tells another girl.
In the school yard, there is just one tap that trickles out water and must provide for all the drinking needs of the children during break time.
The level of despondency amongst the staff is palpable. With two battered water tanks lying in the yard, unable to be connected to the gutters that were no doubt stripped for scrap metal, no rain water can be harvested and no funds are available for the repairs. The school feels forgotten by its municipality and cannot even get a small stipend to purchase soap for hand washing.
A quick survey amongst the girls reveals that just one in five has a tap or water point near their home. Most will spend up to an hour fetching water from a neighbouring water point to complete their daily chores. But all agree that the option of something reusable and washable is infinitely better than nothing at all. Somehow the small drawstring bags, that they still can’t believe they don’t have to share, make them feel important and acknowledged. Someone knows what they’re going through.