As a daughter of Soweto and the mother of four, I know the precious value of an education in helping young people achieve their dreams and live better lives than the ones they were born into.
After my father passed away, my mother supported me and my two sisters on a meager domestic worker’s salary. Life was a struggle under apartheid in South Africa and education could not be taken for granted. As children we took to the streets for our rights to be educated in our own language, and for a better future in a country where everyone would be equal.
That education, which my schoolmates and I fought for, opened the door to my future. I realized my dreams: to sing on stages across Africa and around the world, to secure a future for my own children and to create the Princess of Africa Foundation to help other children realize their potential.
However, even today we know that simple things that most of us take for granted remain an enormous obstacle to the education of girls and young women across sub-Saharan Africa – and indeed much of the developing world. These are: a lack of water, a clean private toilet and soap for handwashing.
Growing up without these essentials leaves young girls ill, facing days away from school and stunted in their growth; many will not survive bouts of severe diarrhea. And, as girls grow into young women, puberty and the onset of menstruation adds another dimension to their need for a safe, private toilet.
It is not a topic often discussed among celebrities and musicians. In fact, it’s rarely discussed in families or even by doctors in many parts of the world. But if we do not stop being ashamed and start discussing it, we will continue to suffer the consequences.
Without a school toilet, these young women are forced into the humiliating situation of trying to cope with their period behind a bush somewhere on the school grounds. They may be shamed or bullied, or even experience violent attempts to enforce the myths and taboos that surround menstruation.
Too many young women decide reluctantly that they cannot face school during their period and go home, some for those few days every month, some forever.
These girls go home with the implicit message that they will not be missed by the school system, that their dreams and aspirations are not worth anything. The lack of something as simple as a working toilet with a locking door and a place to wash up, violates their human rights and compromises the potential of many young girls.
Girls who do not finish school may be more susceptible to coercive sexual relationships, to get money for their basic needs – including sanitary towels. They are more likely to marry or have babies young, leading to increased risk of complications from pregnancy. They are less likely to engage in income-generating activities, are at higher risk of HIV and are more likely to raise their own children in the same poverty in which they grew up than women who have gone to school.
It is a cycle that must be broken.
An informal survey at one school in Ethiopia found that 50 percent of girls missed school for up to four days every month during their periods. Other studies, such as evaluations of a USAID-funded program in Zambia, have found that providing private latrines on school grounds can significantly improve girls’ school attendance.
Increasingly, international organizations such as the NGO WaterAid have joined in calling for global guidelines to help girls manage their periods at school. These are mostly common sense: safe private toilets, a place to wash with soap and accurate information and education for both boys and girls on the changes that come with puberty, which can help to improve gender equality, break down stigmas and taboos and keep girls in school.
The future of Africa cannot be realized without the participation of its entire population. Girls and women are essential for harnessing the full cultural and economic power of this great continent. We can no longer stand by and allow the simple lack of a functioning water tap, a toilet and a bar of soap to deprive millions of girls of their education. More so, it is simply inexplicable that we have not yet risen up to demand a change of mindsets around menstruation – so basic to humanity itself.
In the U.N. global goals, the world has promised to eradicate extreme poverty and create a fairer, more sustainable planet. Water and sanitation – these basic, human needs – are a critical place to start.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women and Girls Hub.