Menstruation, Schooling, and Gender Equity
In many developing countries, there is significant gender inequity in education. Boys are more likely than girls to enroll in school, to attend school, and even to participate in school.
Since millions of girls worldwide experience school absenteeism, there is a huge shortfall in female earning potential and female health.
· School attendance significantly impacts future earning potential. In sub-Saharan Africa, just one extra year of schooling can lead to a 10 percent increase in wages (Wilson et al. 2012).
· Female literacy and women’s education are associated with improved decision-making ability, increased contraception use, increased age at first birth, increased space between births and decreased maternal deaths (Njue and Muthaa 2015, Girod et al. 2017).
One thing that really affects whether girls go to school and participate in school is (you guessed it) periods!
School absenteeism during menstruation is a global phenomenon. In developed countries such as Canada, Singapore, and Australia, high percentages of girls report missing school on their period: 17 percent, 24 percent, and 26 percent, respectively. In developing nations, the phenomenon exists as well, with 24 percent of girls in India missing school due to menstruation (Joseph 2019).
Why are so many girls missing school while on their period? It turns out, girls’ school absenteeism during menstruation occurs for a few reasons.
1. Once a girl can menstruate, she becomes more expensive.
Her family now needs to buy her menstrual supplies. In some communities this cost is very high. For example, in Uganda, menstrual supplies for one menstruator per month can cost 10 percent of a household’s monthly income (Kirk and Sommer 2006). Another challenge is that when men largely control the finances of a household, a practice that is common globally, they may forget or fail to prioritize the purchase of menstrual supplies. Girls can even engage in transactional sex for money to buy menstrual supplies or for the supplies themselves (Jewitt and Ryley 2014). This heightens their risk of contracting STIs/STDs or becoming pregnant, which can also decrease school attendance.
2. Many girls practice poor menstrual hygiene.
Girls all over the world are practicing poor menstrual hygiene management (or MHM as it’s known in the menstrual movement). This means they are not washing their hands, bodies, or menstrual supplies properly, or not using safe menstrual supplies. All these things are really important to prevent infection. If a girl gets an infection, chances are she’ll miss out on some school. A lot of girls haven’t been educated properly in MHM, meaning we’ve got an issue with health education. But we’ve also got another problem. In order for a girl to properly wash, she needs the right sanitation facilities. Many school toilets are not designed with menstrual management issues in mind. However, there is a growing movement to establish toilets that are designed to consider menstruation, context and local preferences (UNICEF, WaterAID, and WSUP 2018). Some suggested amenities within the toilets include shelves or hooks (so menstruators can easily retrieve menstrual supplies from their bags), a door with a lock (for privacy and decreased risk of harassment), sufficient distance from male toilets, and proximity to hand washing facilities with soap (Sommer 2018). The menstrual supplies may also require washing or rinsing, while some may be disposed of. Therefore, sinks with soap and drying areas for reusable products, and waste receptacles for disposable products should not be forgotten.
3. Many girls experience feelings of shame surrounding menstruation.
All over the world, menstruation is seen as taboo. This is partly because menstruation is linked to sexual maturation. Many parents and teachers resist talking to students about menstruation, because they fear it will lead to conversations about sex and female sexuality (which are also taboo topics). Girls may also choose not to attend school during menstruation because they are afraid of leakage (menstrual blood leaking through underwear and clothes). In countries where sexual and reproductive health is not well understood, boys are largely ignorant of menstruation. As a result, they tease and harass girls when they see menstrual stains on the girls’ clothes, increasing girls’ shame and causing emotional and psychological distress. In many schools, students must stand up to participate in class, something that menstruating girls are hesitant to do when they fear this will expose stains of menstrual blood on their school clothes. Periods have a very real impact on girls’ participation in school.
As a result of the (often high) financial cost of menstruation, lack of safe menstrual hygiene management, and fear of being shamed while menstruating, girls all over the world are missing school or not participating fully in school while on their periods. From a fairly young age a girls biology affects their schooling, often giving boys a head start, and leading to further inequalities later in life. In order to break this cycle of gender inequity, we have a lot of work to do in the menstrual equity space. Period supplies need to be affordable or free. Education on safe and healthy menstrual hygiene management needs to be available to all menstruators. Toilets and sanitation facilities need to be designed to allow safe and dignified menstruation. And we need to engage with everyone (yes this means boys, men, and women from older generations, too) in conversations about periods so that we can work to decrease stigma and taboos. So, let’s work to further educate ourselves. Let’s work to engage in dialogue that may at first feel uncomfortable. Let’s work to make sure that all menstruators have the tools they need (supplies, education, peace of mind) to menstruate in dignity. And let’s work extra hard to make sure that no one misses school or participates less in school while on their period, because that alone will have a huge impact on gender equity.
Veronica Ferris, MA International Development: Gender & Development (American University)
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