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Akros staffer Anne Mutunda nominated for Jakes Gerwel Award in Pubic Health

`Andy Prinsen June 2, 2014
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Anne Mutunda, Akros W.A.S.H. Surveillance Officer

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) School of Public Health in cooperation with The Mauerberger Foundation established an award in 2013 to honor the memory of Jakes Gerwel, the university’s late Vice Chancellor. Before joining the university, Gerwel was Director General in the office of Nelson Mandela’s presidency. Each year the award honors a graduate of the school for the outstanding work he or she has demonstrated in the field of public health.

Anne Mutunda

Anne Mutunda (far right), teaching during a training for W.A.S.H. surveillance officers in her role for Akros.

Anne Mutunda, a Water & Sanitation Health (W.A.S.H.) Surveillance Officer with Akros, is being honored as a nominee for the work she did during her MPH studies at the university. The qualitative study, undertaken in 2012, was initially seen as an exploration of the factors influencing the understanding, experiences and practices of menstrual hygiene among adolescent girls in secondary schools in the Mongu District of Zambia’s Western Province. Mutunda recognized a situation where menstruation has been, and still is a taboo that is dealt with in secrecy, information and knowledge about menstruation and menstrual hygiene among adolescent girls being inadequate as a result.

During the process of the study, however, Mutunda would find that there would need to be a clear focus on the anticipated knowledge gap and the associated traditional cultural factors influencing menstrual hygiene. There was also a strong focus on the socio-economics, both of the girls individually and the schools they attended. The poverty in which they lived meant that the girls had no access to the basic necessities of sanitary towels, instead using torn bits of rags or toilet paper. Even more significantly, a lack of water and sanitation facilities at home and at the schools made even the most basic hygiene practices impossible.

Mutunda examined how the constraints would impact the future opportunities of the girls and demonstrated how the lack of access to basic necessities, cultural practices, taunting and discrimination by male co-learners and even teachers, meant that the girls stayed away during their menstrual periods, missing a significant part of their schooling. As a result, many girls end up dropping out of school completely when they starting menstruating. The study concluded with the recognition that menstruation, a normal function of all teenagers and pre-menopausal women was, under those circumstances, a form of gender discrimination, and consequently a human rights issue. As Mutunda’s study states:

“Originally gender discrimination was not an issue the study had planned to investigate. However, during the conduct of the FGDs, it emerged as a relevant additional factor greatly impacting on the menstrual hygiene of the girls, their mental and social wellbeing and their school careers … [these factors] created an atmosphere of emotional and psychological stress, ultimately leading to poor school performance and dropping out….. They also led to inconveniences and infringement on their rights.”

The late UWC Vice-Chancellor Professor Jakes Gerwel, whom the award honors.

The late UWC Vice-Chancellor Professor Jakes Gerwel, whom the award honors. Photo courtesy of UWC.

The study concludes with a set of clear recommendations to improve the situation at a national, district, and local (school and community) level, including but not limited to the recommendation to incorporate menstrual hygiene into Zambia’s Public Health Act and the national water and sanitation strategy.

As Vice Chancellor of UWC, Gerwel clearly saw the need for the university to focus on public health practice that led to measurable improvements in peoples’ health and was based on solid science. It was largely because of his influence that the UWC School of Public Health was established in 1993. Learn more about the life of Jakes Gerwel here.

Related links

Learn more about the Akros W.A.S.H. program here.

Click here to download Mutunda’s complete study.

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