As a daughter of Soweto, and the mother of four, I know the value of an education in helping the youth to achieve their dreams and live a better life than the one they were born into.
After my father passed away, my mother supported me and my two sisters on a meagre domestic worker’s salary. Life was a struggle under apartheid South Africa and education could not be taken for granted. As children, we took to the streets for our right to be educated in our own language, and for a better future in a country where all would be equal.
That education, which my schoolmates and I fought for, opened the door to my own future. I realised my dreams: to sing on stages across Africa and around the world, to secure a future for my children, and to create the Princess of Africa Foundation to help other children realise their potential.
But even today, we know that a simple thing which most of us take for granted remains an enormous obstacle to the education of girls and young women across sub-Saharan Africa and much of the developing world. That is the lack of clean water, a clean, private toilet and soap for handwashing. Growing up without these essentials leaves girls ill, facing days away from school and with stunted growth.
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 all 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 that they cannot face school while they are menstruating and go home, some for those few days every month, some forever.
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 the increased risk of complications during pregnancy. They are less likely to engage in income-generating activities, are at higher risk of contracting HIV, and are more likely to raise their own children in the same poverty they grew up in 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% of girls missed school for up to four days every month while they were menstruating. Other studies, such as evaluations of a United States Agency for International Development-funded programme in Zambia, have found that providing private latrines in school grounds can significantly improve girls’ school attendance.
Increasingly, international organisations such as the nongovernmental organisation 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 equity, break down stigmas and taboos, and keep girls in school.
The future of Africa cannot be realised without the participation of its entire people. Girls and women are essential in harnessing the full cultural and economic power of this great continent.
We can no longer stand by as the global community, and allow the simple lack of a functioning tap, a toilet and a bar of soap to deprive millions of girls of their education, their health and their rights.
More so, it is simply inexplicable that we have not yet risen up to demand a change of mindset about menstruation, so basic to humanity itself.
In the United Nations Global Goals, the world has promised to eradicate extreme poverty and create a fairer, more sustainable world. Water and sanitation, these basic human needs, are a critical place to start.
Yvonne Chaka Chaka is an award-winning singer and a United Nations goodwill ambassador for the Roll Back Malaria Partnership. Last week she participated in the fourth Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, the world’s largest on the health rights and well-being of girls and women