Poverty is not only confined to the lack of food, shelter or clothing.
It includes a set of social and economic issues, in other words it is relative.
Having spent days among the marginalized San, Ovatue and Ovatjimba communities has made us realise that perhaps poverty also discriminates in terms of gender.
Perhaps women suffer higher levels of poverty compared to men, maybe because of their biological and natural being.
Due to the higher effect that poverty has on women than on men, other women will sacrifice their energy and resources to help their counterparts just to ensure they have the means to protect themselves every month when the “red devil” shows up.
Menstruation, as natural as it can be, is one of the stumbling blocks that can negatively affect the education of the girl child.
Girl children mostly affected are those living in poverty-stricken rural areas where they have no means to acquire sanitary pads.
Having spoken to many girls and teachers in some of the schools in the marginalised communities, it became apparent that many schoolgirls miss classes on a monthly basis during their menstrual period.
This is because their parents cannot afford to buy them sanitary pads every month, especially those from families that do not fall in the categories of any form of social protection such as the elderly, those with disability or orphans and vulnerable children (OVC).
In some families where it is a man that benefits from such social protection, it does not help as some men either do not understand or do not care about the welfare of their female family members when it comes to women issues. By the way, it is a woman’s issue not a man’s, they say.
For the girl child, in many cases when a girl messes up at school, others – especially boys – will laugh at her, calling her names, ridiculing and even bullying her until she decides never to step into the school yard ever again. The results of this are devastating: low self-esteem, self-pity, fear and being a school dropout could result in teenage pregnancy.
Some girls will tell you they stay at home for the duration of their menstruation, while others would feel they are too embarrassed to go back to school after other school kids laughed at them when they “messed up”.
This is a sad reality and a hindrance to many girl children finishing their schooling.
In some schools, female teachers have now taken it upon themselves to ensure that they fork out a certain percentage from their salaries to help girl children attain their education.
This is a humanitarian gesture for women, by women who have the future of the girl child at heart. At Mangetti Dune in Tsumkwe a group of female teachers usually contribute N$400 per month to buy toiletries, mostly sanitation pads, roll-on deodorant and soap for needy girl children.
Among the beneficiary children are those aged from around twelve, the age when they start to menstruate. The number of needy children being assisted varies every month and at times up to twenty children could be assisted.
The principal of Mangetti Dune in Tsumkwe Constituency of the Otjozondjupa Region, Menesia Gomes, is one of the few who should be commended for carrying the future of girl children at their schools on their shoulders.
Together with other female teachers, Gomes ensures that every month when they are paid they put together a certain amount of money from their salaries to buy sanitary pads for the girl children at their school.
“In the past many girl children would miss classes when they were having their periods because they did not have money to buy pads. We started holding meetings with the girls, explaining to them that they must be open to us teachers as we will also be open to them because we are all women, so that we can help them. They started coming one by one. Today, we do not have girls missing classes as a result of that. They are now very open,” she said.
She said girls are now given a leeway to approach teachers when they are in need of sanitary pads.
At another school in the marginalized community of Ovatue in the Epupa Constituency of Kunene Region, Kapirikua Korukuze who teaches Grade 4 narrates to us how the female teachers also sometimes help the girl children with pads.
“If we do not help them, they stay home and this will mean many of our classes will not have girls. We just have to help them when we can, otherwise they will continue to drop out of school,” she said.
Some girls will tell you they used to stay at home or in their hostel rooms for the entire duration of their menstruation and pretended to be sick.
While others would feel they were too embarrassed to go back to school after other children laughed at them when they saw bloody stains on their skirts.
This is a reality and a hindrance to many of the girl children in achieving their dreams. Perhaps there are many cases of this kind, and perhaps many girl children have lost their educational opportunities due to this factor.
In order to help the girl children whose dreams are likely to be shattered, perhaps the Ministry of Basic Education, Arts and Culture should consider making sanitary pads a part of the school toiletries to be purchased just like toilet paper.
This can help girl children, especially in the marginalized communities who have no means to obtain sanitary pads.
It will also help girl children to be open to their teachers and matrons on other women-related issues so that other related problems can be avoided in future.
They say when you educate a girl child you educate the whole nation, therefore tackling issues that prevent girl children from attaining their education is praiseworthy.
These teachers who are providing extraordinary assistance to help keep the girl children in school are indeed our heroes.