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Located just 35 kilometers outside Cotonou, Benin’s largest city and its seat of government, is a school where there are not nearly enough toilets for its student population.
If all 16 toilets at the General Education College of Ekpè were functioning, there would be only one available for every 375 of the 6,000 students enrolled at the school. In reality, only half the toilets are currently accessible, due to repairs being made to a damaged roof, putting the toilet-to-student ratio at 1 to 750.
A report published by the World Health Organization in 2009 suggests that schools should have at least one toilet for every 25 girls, and one toilet plus one urinal for every 50 boys.
The critical shortage of toilets at the college in Ekpè presents a real obstacle to learning for boys and girls alike. But for the school’s 3,500 female students, the difficulty is multiplied by the lack of proper facilities with which to manage their menstruation.
“I don’t use my college toilets because they are not clean, and they don’t have doors,” said a young female student who was visibly concerned about the situation.
Managing menstruation in the absence of adequate toilet facilities is a source of anxiety that leads many girls to leave school and return after their period is over.
“Sometimes when I’m in class, and I feel like I am stained, I ask permission to leave, and I never come back,” said one student who finds the situation unbearable.
“It’s when I finish my period that I come back,” she said. “This is where I miss classes.”
While it is unbearable for many young girls, they have no alternative at the moment. In most schools and colleges, especially the public ones, the requirements for proper management of menstrual hygiene have not yet been taken into account.
Apart from the isolated efforts of some non-governmental organizations, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) remains a silent problem that needs to be factored into planning at the national level.
In addition to compromising the education of girls, the lack of clean and adequate toilets for menstruation management has health consequences for them as well.
“When you spend more time with a towel while you are menstruating, it can lead to infections,” says Ms Hermine Kouton, a hygiene and sanitation technician at the Cotonou II and III zone office. She explains that after a maximum of five hours, and each time the girl feels wet, she needs to change towels.
“But for now, these young girls from our middle and high schools are desperately waiting for solutions from their school authorities,” she says.
“I do not think that today, the education system will be able to allocate a resource in time for the specific maintenance of the toilets,” explains Ms Olga Tchoskova, director of the CEG Agblangandan, one of the few female headteachers.
“It is up to each establishment and each administration to know what to do,” she adds.
At Akpro-Missérété College, the school found its own strategy to make the toilets clean for students.
“It is true that, in the past, the toilets smelled. The children urinated anyway, and there were papers everywhere,” says Mr Samuel Agossou, a director at Akpro-Missérété College.
“For the last two or three years, we have changed this situation by creating cleaning groups of two students per cabin,” he says.
Even with this solution, however, the college’s six toilets are still vastly insufficient for its nearly 1,000 students.
Menstruation, a factor of exclusion
In sub-Saharan Africa, one in ten girls does not go to school during her menstrual cycle, according to a UNESCO report.
In Benin, where girls and women comprise more than 51% of its 11 million population, the extent of the toilet inadequacy and its impacts are not precisely known. But the lack of facilities for the proper management of menstruation is at least partly to blame for girl dropouts.
According to a 2017 survey carried out by the Claudine Talon Foundation (FCT) in three highly-populated municipalities in south-eastern Benin – Adjarra, Avrankou and Porto-Novo, 15.2 % of girls miss classes because of menstruation due to discomfort or because they are the laughing stock of their comrades.
Mr Félix Adegnika, WSSCC National Coordinator for Benin, explains that in many Benin communities, especially in rural areas, menstruating women are considered impure and are subject to all kinds of harassment, including forced isolation and exclusion from basic social activities.
MHM need for improved coordination at the national level
While some non-governmental organizations have carried out studies for their own interventions, no baseline study has been completed at the national level.
“To tell the truth, Benin is still lagging on this issue because there is no official position,” says Mr Adegnika. “A good part of the NGOs that intervene do so in isolation.”