More than 130 million girls are out of school, which not only detriments the girls but detriments communities who are in need of more educated individuals.
What do sanitary products have to do with girls’ education?
A significant barrier to girls’ education is the struggles they face due to their periods. In the world’s developing countries – particularly those in Africa and Asia – a significant number of girls are living without education on menstruation, nor the adequate sanitary products – forcing them to stay home from school. Girls are left to use old rags, tissue, or even more unhygienic (and potentially dangerous) products such as sand or leaves. Although menstruators tend to start skipping just one or two days of school while on their periods, these missed days can encourage them to drop out altogether. This leads to less educated girls in communities, which hinder chances of development and progress for communities and countries. Sadly, a large proportion of why girls drop out together is due to the cultural traditions and periods being disregarded as “taboo” – contributing to a lack of substantial education around periods and sanitary products. Girls grow up dreading their periods, fearing that their communities will see them as ‘dirty’, and many girls in school end up being victims of bullying from their peers.
The impact of inadequate sanitary provisions
Research has shown poor menstrual hygiene can lead to an increase in reproductive infections, which makes women more vulnerable to complications in pregnancy and child birth. Poor sanitary conditions emerge from the rise of informal settlements (which lack appropriate sewage systems) – with schools situated in the emerging settlements, the chances of poor menstrual hygiene increases. Although there have been phenomenal strides in providing education to girls around the world, much of the up and coming schools fail to recognise the importance of menstruation’s effect on girls’ education.
Fortunately, the United Nations has acknowledged menstrual health requirements as an important issue in the Sustainable Development Goals – Target 6.2 requires “adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene” for girls in particular. However, the extent to which this is being put into practice is still limited as many girls are still missing days of school or dropping out altogether. Girls’ lack of access to sanitary towels creates severe problems for them even when in school. Adolescent girls are missing out not only academically, but on the social aspects which help them grow as individuals. The girls who do attend school whilst on their periods feel ‘shy’ or ‘shamed’ due to their periods; feeling unable to go outside during breaktimes or even stand up to answer questions in class. A study of menstrual management in Uganda found that girls in rural Uganda miss up to 8 days of school per term because of their periods Most girls choose not to attend school during their periods due to the myriad of difficulties they face – girls either have to deal with the embarrassment displaying the stain or washing their uniforms in the latrines. Ergo, it just becomes easier for the girls to stay at home.
Girls who stay out of school on their periods become more encouraged to stay off school altogether, finding it hard to get back into their learning afterwards. More problems ensue with girls out of school – they become more at risk from child marriage, and teen pregnancy. Even those girls who can obtain sanitary products suffer; girls will sometimes agree to have sex with older men in exchange for sanitary products. This in turn can increase girls’ risk of catching HIV, which forces girls to drop out of school anyways. Girls of poorer countries suffer either way – due to the patriarchal nature of these societies which fail to protect girls from discrimination and difficulty. Whilst these societies continue to shames girls for a biological process beyond their control, the absences of adolescent girls in education will persist.
What’s being done?
The solutions are clear – greater provision of sanitary products for menstruators! However, it is not that simple: there needs to be a fundamental change to cultural norms about periods, a systematic change of school uniforms so stains don’t show up as badly, and better facilities for girls to wash stains out at school. Countries should begin looking at low-cost local production methods for sanitary towels. Safe spaces – like the ones ActionAid provide for girls in Rwanda – need to be built in schools equipped with sanitary products and cleaning facilities to help girls deal with the process of their period without shame. Those with the power need to focus on Menstrual Health Management to keep girls in school and empowered.
About the author
Olivia Andrews is a Geography undergraduate at the University of Leeds who is an activist for gender equality, girls’ education and ending FGM practices. Olivia also volunteers with the Zimbabwe Educational Trust in Leeds.
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