Rita Kaari Marete was a teacher at Kisiwa Primary School for sixteen years and only transferred to a different school in January this year. During her time at Kisiwa, she was quickly made aware of the many challenges that the girls faced at school. The most prevalent issues were poverty and lack of access to sanitary towels. Determined to help the girls, Rita registered the school to be part of the “Always Keeping girls in school” initiative by P&G. She says that the school’s partnership with P&G is one of the best things she has achieved as a teacher.
“P&G has offered so much more than just sanitary towels, they have trained the girls and empowered them immensely. The girls are now more assertive about their reproductive health, as they continue to grow confident, their academic performance has also improved significantly. As a teacher and parent, it gives me a lot of joy to witness this.” – Rita
Tell us about Kisiwa Primary School.
Kisiwa Primary is located near collapsed coffee farms. Most of our pupils come from the informal settlement part of Thika. A big number of the parents are casual labourers at the nearby farms. I had been there for sixteen years and I taught English, Science and CRE. I am also a trained counsellor, so I was the head of the guidance and counselling department.
What was the age bracket of the girls you taught and, in your assessment, how aware were they about reproductive health?
I taught classes four to eight, so the girls were between ages 10-14 years. Before the keeping girls in school initiative, it was evident that the girls did not have adequate information and education about their sexuality or reproductive health. We had instances where girls failed to attend school because they had engaged in sex and gotten pregnant in the process. A number of girls ended up sitting their exams while heavily pregnant.
We found out that construction workers from around the school would lure them with gifts in exchange for sex. The girls didn’t have proper guidelines in matters of abstinence or the changes that their bodies were experiencing. All this added to the fact that they either came from homes that couldn’t afford the sanitary towels or the parents were not willing to provide the pads for them.
The girls had low self-esteem and were not confident enough to voice their struggles so sometimes we would discover that they were using old pieces of mattress or clothes during their periods.
How would you describe the girl’s backgrounds?
Most of the girls come from very humble backgrounds because their parents work at coffee farms. In the recent past, three farms have collapsed, leaving the parents unemployed and without a livelihood. A lot of families have built semi-permanent houses on the banks of River Chania. As we speak, those families are being affected by the ongoing floods.
What challenges were the girls facing before P&G came into the picture?
As I mentioned before, poverty was the root of most of their problems. The girls struggled in school because things were tough at home. At the same time, they were going through a crucial moment in their journey to womanhood without someone to educate and nurture them. With all these challenges, the girls didn’t have a reliable support system to talk about their issues, but P&G gave them that platform and the programme has been a great blessing to the girls.
Had you tried to solve these challenges before P&G came along?
As teachers, we would often have to go back into our own pockets to do the little we could by supporting the most vulnerable cases. We had set a kitty aside and we called it “Ngwamura”, a Kikuyu word that means to help someone out when they are in a tough spot.
Contributions were made by both male and female teachers. The funds collected would be used to buy sanitary towels and I have to say, our male colleagues really came through for the girls and offered complete support. Some of the girls didn’t even have enough food and that led me to creating a food programme where teachers were welcomed to make donations towards providing the most vulnerable children with food.
That being said, it was still challenging for us because we couldn’t solve all the problems at once, hence many girls were still suffering.
When did you become aware of the Always Keeping Girls in School Programme and how did you sign up?
Our partnership with P&G started in 2016. I had approached someone to help provide the girls with sanitary towels and sex education. I was referred to a lady called Mary who runs Bethel Network; an organization that reaches vulnerable girls and helps them understand reproductive health and provides them with sanitary towels. Mary sent someone to the school to conduct an assessment and upon seeing the situation, we were immediately brought on board.
Once in the programme, how many girls were taken in?
P&G only takes in girls who are in class seven and eight. In total, the initial number of girls that benefitted from the programme that year was 200 because we had double streams. Since the first year, the number has changed but it is always within the 200 mark.
What was P&G offering the girls?
P&G had so much for the girls. First, they were educated about reproductive health, sexuality, and self-confidence. Then they were offered sanitary towels all year round, making sure that every girl didn’t go through the periods without a pad. Through this education and awareness, we started witnessing a gradual change in the behaviours of the girls. They were more confident, and they no longer missed classes.
Absentia went down immediately, and this was very promising because in the past, girls would lose a lot of valuable time in class and social interactions with their friends. Inevitably, performance went up and the girls were now topping the classes. All this because someone was present to encourage and to empower them.
Does the programme also include parents as well?
In our case, training was only available for the girls at school but I believe that there is an urgent need to also involve the parents because they appeared to be quite ignorant and irresponsible when it came to looking after their children and guiding the girls through their most impressionable years.
There were cases where the children would receive the pads in bulk and the parents would either sell them or gift them to relatives. Other parents have turned a blind eye to the girls getting involved with men, this has led to the occurrence of a lot of early pregnancies. All this shows just how much the parents are not informed about reproductive health or how to empower the girls. In some cases, we have been forced to report the parents to the police station because of negligence. In the future, training should be expanded to parents as well.
How many sanitary towels does each girl receive?
They receive eight pieces every month. In a year, each girl will have benefited from 96 pieces of sanitary towels, which is more than enough to get them through their periods.
How do the girls access the pads when they are on holiday?
I understand that all schools have different ways of distributing the pads but for Kisiwa, we would give out the sanitary towels on closing day and each girl received what had been assigned to her. In some special cases, girls have called me during the holiday and said that they no longer have pads and I would have to find a way to sort them out. These are the instances that I mentioned before of parents giving out the pads or even selling them.
P&G once had a sanitary towel dispenser where each girl had a card and they would use it to get a pad when and if they needed one. The dispensers didn’t last long but I feel like that was the best method of distribution because it made sure that the girls were responsible for the number of times, they took out a pad. If you exhausted your assigned number of pads, you couldn’t access more. This was also instrumental in curbing parents from misusing the towels when they were taken home in bulk. It was a brilliant idea and I hope they can bring it back soon.
Does the programme support the girls once they are out of primary school?
The programme only provides for girls who are in class seven and eight. Once they transition to high school, they have to cater for themselves. As teachers, we have had to extend support through high school because they are still needy. It has not been easy, but we try to help where we can.
What has been the biggest advantage of partnering with P&G to help the girls?
There are so many advantages. One of them is in the title of the programme, “Keeping girls in school”. We have seen absentia reduce in a big way because the girls no longer have a reason to stay at home. Academic improvement has also been realized, we have seen girls rise up to exemplary performances and even receive scholarships which have boosted them financially as they move on to high school. Above everything else, educating the girls to be self-aware and confident in their own skin has to be the greatest advantage. I can confidently say that all the girls that have gone through the programme are strides ahead of the rest when it comes to being aware of themselves and their womanhood.
How important is it for schools to encourage life skills training as opposed to only sticking to what is in the syllabus?
Life skills are just as important as academics. Academics and teachings about life should always go hand in hand. If you only concentrate on the classwork like most of the schools do, chances are, you will have produced a half-baked student.
What would you say to P&G, and all the people that have supported this initiative?
I have a lot of gratitude and heartfelt appreciation to all people who have been involved in making this programme a success. The brain behind this initiative clearly cares a lot about the girl child because they are coming in at the most crucial age where girls need a lot of guidance and support or else, they get lost.
What I would ask is that they consider having a programme for the boys too because we have seen cases where the girls are too empowered and confident that they intimidate the boys in all aspects. All in all, they are doing a tremendous job and I hope that they can continue impacting young lives for a long time.