The first time Davinia James had her period, she felt ashamed. “I want it to go away,” she thought.
But when she told her mom about what was happening, she felt supported and loved.
“My mom kept telling me, ‘There’s nothing to be ashamed about. You’re OK and it’s natural,’” she told Global Citizen.
Her male cousins, too, showed her support, running to the store to get her pads when she ran out. Her school provided students with menstrual hygiene resources. She was, in short, taken care of and able to overcome any stigma and embarrassment she felt as a result. It did not change her day-to-day life, her attendance at school, her prospects.
But Davinia, a Global Citizen youth ambassador for education, recently learned that not every girl has access to these kinds of support or resources.
“This is not the reality for millions of girls and it’s one of the main reasons why they’re missing from classrooms,” she said. “And if girls are missing from classrooms while they’re on their period, then that deprives them of getting a quality education.”
She’s right. Around the world, girls are less likely to graduate from secondary school than boys. In fact, according to UNESCO worldwide, 131 million girls are out of school — and 100 million of those are girls of high school age. And while there are many reasons for this, periods play a major role.
In some cases, girls simply don’t have access to sanitary products. In others, they face discrimination and stigma during their periods. In others still, they don’t have educational resources to inform them about safe, sanitary hygiene practices.
That’s why James is campaigning to increase access to menstrual services, including sanitary pads and menstrual libraries, for low-income girls in Nigeria.
Why So Many Girls Are Missing School
Without access to proper education, resources, girls are often forced to stay home from school during their periods. This leads them to miss anywhere from 10-20% of school days. Sometimes, they drop out of school completely.
UNICEF has estimated that roughly 1 in 10 girls in Africa miss school because of their periods each year.
Often, the cost of sanitary products for girls is simply too high, forcing them to skip school to tend to their bleeding. In some countries, like Malawi, sanitary pads can cost the equivalent of an entire day’s salary. In Kenya, two-thirds of women and girls can’t afford sanitary pads, The Guardian has reported.
Apart from the cost of menstrual pads, stigma plays a major role in preventing girls from continuing their education past puberty.
“Boys used to laugh at me and I eventually simply stayed home whenever my periods started,” one girl told India news site The Citizen.
Period stigma often comes from entrenched superstitions and narratives that paint women who menstruate as unclean, or impure. This phenomenon dates back for centuries, and is prevalent among numerous different cultures, religions, and backgrounds.
"Periods [have long] been associated with dirt, and disgust, and shame, and some might say fear,” Jane Ussher, professor of Women's Health Psychology at Western Sydney University, told ABC News.
In practice, this can have serious consequences. In extreme cases, girls are forced to stay in menstrual huts far removed from their communities, which can not only be counterproductive, but also deadly. In January 2018, a girl died from smoke inhalation in a menstrual hut in Nepal after she tried to make a fire to keep herself warm.
Why Does This Matter?
Studies have shown that keeping girls in school is important for their own health and well-being, and for the success of the entire community.
When a girl finishes secondary school, she is less likely to experience child marriage, face domestic abuse, and suffer from long-term health complications. As a result, educated women and girls are more likely to have fewer, healthier children. These children then, in turn, more likely to get an education and pull themselves out of poverty.