The call to get more girls in school, and keep them there, has not been a quiet one. Everyone from First Lady Michelle Obama to twelve year-old Kenyan activist Eunice Akoth have been on the front end of the battle to get more girls in school. Even with the progress in recent years, girls still continue to suffer severe disadvantages and face many barriers in education systems, particularly in the developing world. Reasons for lack of education and increased dropout rates include early or forced marriage, unaffordable school fees, and sexual violence. Yet, one of the major barriers for girls in developing countries is a natural, monthly occurrence: menstruation.
It’s not abnormal for girls to menstruate, but it is keeping them out of classrooms. In rural Uganda, girls miss up to eight days of school each term because they’re menstruating, while in Kenya, girls miss an average of 4.9 days of school each month. With each day of school missed, girls can find themselves falling behind the curriculum, and that plays a major role in the reasons why she drops out.
There are many factors that contribute to girls not feeling comfortable attending school during their period. There is the issue of lack of sanitary facilities, lack of sanitary pads, and teasing by peers. Accessibility to safe menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is also a huge road block for girls seeking to further their education. In a report done by the Global Partnership for Education and the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative, it was found that in South Asia girls face a huge disadvantage when it comes to toilet and water facilities at school. While girls are menstruating, they often have to leave school, all because there aren’t proper facilities for them located within the school. It was also found that the availability of separate latrines for girls and women may also affect the retention of female teachers.
It’s unacceptable that girls in developing countries grow up dreading their periods because of the negative stigma surrounding menstruation. In an interview with The Guardian, 16-year old student Joan Anyango said, "Boys used to laugh at me and I eventually simply stayed home whenever my periods started." In some countries, girls are even encouraged to stay home during their periods, because it is seen as dirty and impure for them to leave their homes during that time.
While stigma and lack of facilities are contributing to girls staying out of classrooms, one barrier is even more troubling: It is not always safe for girls to even use a bathroom facility. Girls not only face potential violence in restrooms, but also on their walk to them. For many girls in developing countries, toilets are not inside schools, but located in a compound outside, which can be dark and out of site from peers or educators. There are far too many cases where young girls are sexual assaulted when they travel to use the latrine. After an attack, a girl may be more likely to drop out of school as she feels unsafe. Having clean and safe designated latrines that are designated female and separated from the other sex must be a requirement for every school at all levels of education.
What would happen if we could keep girls in school longer? The benefits would expand beyond girlsto their families, communities, and societies. If we kept girls in school beyond grade 7, they would be more likely to marry later, less likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth, and more likely to raise healthier, educated children. Education also plays a role in narrowing the pay gap between men and women; In Pakistan, women with a primary education earn 51 percent what men earn, but with a secondary education, they earn 70 percent to what men earn.
In order for girls to want to stay in school, they must feel comfortable and safe while they are there. No girl should have to fear ridicule while in school, nor worry that she will experience violence inside or outside the walls of her classroom. Fortunately, there are people out the doing the work to make girls feel more comfortable in school. Companies and non-profits like, THINX and AFRIpads are working to break the stigma surrounding menstruation; they are doing so by supplying girls with low-cost sanitary pads so they feel safe and comfortable during their periods. By doing so, the investment is being made so that every girl, no matter where she’s from, has the opportunity to reach her fullest potential.
Contributed by Brittany Tatum, in support of Women Deliver.
Women Deliver is a global advocacy organization bringing together voices from around the world to call for action to improve the health and well-being of girls and women.