periods and girls’ education in developing countries

Periods.

time

Ladies, we all know what that is.

That time of the month when we bleed a crimson tide from our uterus, our boobs become so much more sensitive (to boyfriends: touch me and I will kill you”), become ravenous chipmunks and terrorize our refrigerators for burgers and cakes and chocolates and ice cream (“WHERE IS THE DAMN CHOCOLATE CAKE?!”), cry a river over that sad advertisement (“but that puppy was so cute and it was so sad and i’ll never be mean to anyone again I swear!”), suddenly putting on what we think is 100 pounds overnight (“OH MY GOD MY FACE IS SO BLOATED I AM SO FAT WHY IS EVERYTHING JIGGLING?!”)  and how we suddenly become fabulous contortionists and start twisting ourselves to try to give ourselves some relief from the damned belly and back cramps as though Satan had gleefully unleashed a million tiny devilish imps to stab at our ovaries and uterus (“oh dear God no, why am i being punished for not being pregnant?!“)

meet

Lucky for many of us, we live in developed countries where we have pads and tampons to help us manage our monthly flow, and it helps us continue go about doing our daily activities without too much worrying about any unsightly stains (don’t you hate it when that happens?!). However, some of don’t realize that there are many girls and women our age living in poor developing countries such as Uganda, Afghanistan and India our age who just aren’t so lucky.

Take a look at some of these statistics from Menstrual Hygiene Day:

  1. In India, 66 % of girls-only schools do not have functioning toilets.
  2. 83% of girls in Burkina Faso and 77% in Niger have no place at school to change their sanitary menstrual materials.
  3. 32.5% of schoolgirls from South Asia had not heard about menstruation prior to menarche and an overwhelming 97.5% did not know that menstrual blood came from the uterus
  4. A study at a school in Uganda found that half of the girl pupils missed 1-3 school days a month, or 8-24 school days a year.
  5. UNESCO estimates that 1 in 10 African girls miss school during menses, eventually leading to a higher school drop out rate. 

According to Fredrick W. Njuguna, the Program Director of Familia Human Care Trust in Kenya, poor menstrual hygiene is one of the reasons for the high rates of absenteeism among girls in poor countries. Why is that so?

First, with no feminine hygiene products, many of these young girls and women in poor rural areas in developing countries resort to using and even reusing old dirty rags, bark from trees, sand and leaves in place of pads to soak up the blood. These products are clearly not absorptive , and use of such unsuitable, uncomfortable and unhygienic products certainly account for the increase in the the risk of gynecological problems these women face, such as vaginal infections, cervical cancer and other reproductive diseases. Ladies, can you imagine yourself using s handful of dirty leaves from the ground – leaves that have been trodden on by people – and stuffing it into your period panties to soak up menstrual blood? Or even using cloth from old clothing and washing them again once you’ve used them because you can’t afford a nice soft comfortable pad? How am I supposed to keep the sand from falling out my panties? How will the leaves absorb the blood?! Won’t the husks and tree bark scratch and cut me, or worse will it disintegrate?! 

Second, many schools are not equipped with basic sanitation facilities that allow girls to clean up after themselves. No flushing toilets, no dustbins, no running water and no toilet paper – such discourages young girls from attending school because they have no facilities to help them. Imagine yourself stuck in a bathroom with no flushing toilet and toilet paper. How are you supposed to clean yourself?! Where am I supposed to change my overflowing pads?! What am I supposed to do with my used pad? Bury it in the sand?! 

Finally, lack of sanitation facilities aside, there is also a social stigma attached to menstruation. CliCk on the first picture below to get to see how menstruation is perceived in some of the more traditional societies in the world.  Some Hindus in conservative societies perceive women who are menstruating as “unclean” and so are isolated from the outside world until their periods are over before they are allowed to take part in regular activities again. In some strict Islamic societies, when a woman in menstruating, she is not allowed to have sex with her husband nor take part in any religious activities such as praying or fasting. Here in Singapore, if someone were to label me as unclean because of my crimson tides, I would probably go “ME UNCLEAN?! TO ANY MAN OUT THERE WHO DARES LABEL ME DIRTY, BE THANKFUL THAT WE LADIES GO THROUGH THIS BECAUSE IT MEANS OUR OVARIES ARE FUNCTIONING AND IT MEANS THAT WE CAN STILL BEAR YOUR CHILDREN IF WE WANT TO. BECAUSE IF WE CAN BLEED, IT MEANS WE CAN GROW HUMAN BEINGS. WHAT’S YOUR TALENT?!

taboos

men

It’s a very sad and unfortunate situation for many of these girls because the combination of inadequate sanitation facilities, feminine hygiene products, knowledge and social taboos prevent them from going to school and getting an education. Out of fear of soiling their clothes or offending anyone, they simply choose to stay at home and miss school for a week to manage their periods. Some girls may eventually drop out due to parental and societal pressure as well as personal shame and embarrassment. It doesn’t help that mothers in these rural regions feel embarrassed at discussing the issue of periods with their daughters  According to Masimba Biriwasha:

A girl absent from school due to menstruation for four days in 28 days (a month) loses 13 learning days, equivalent to two weeks of learning, in every school term. It is estimated that within the four years of high school the same girl loses 156 learning days equivalent to almost 24 weeks out of 144 weeks of learning in high school”

Girls shouldn’t be prevented from getting an education, excluded and disempowered because of a natural process in their reproductive systems, but unfortunately, because menstruation is a very private affair, hardly does it ever make headlines. Little is known about such a social conundrum and as such, little has been done to help address reproductive health issues for poor women.

when does a girl do

Thankfully, there ARE a number of social enterprises that have acted to help address the issue:

Pads4Girls by Lunapads

pads4

Pads4Girls is a social project of Lunapads that has been providing school girls with eco-friendly, washable and long-lasting menstrual pads and underwear since 2000. Their mission? To help girls in developing nations get better access to an education by providing them with affordable and eco-friendly feminine hygiene products and improve awareness about menstruation. Producing reusable and affordable pads is incredibly important for these underprivileged women because not only does it alleviate the financial burden of purchasing pads each month, it also lessens the negative environmental impact brought about by disposing used pads

AFRIPads

afripads

AFRIpads also produce sustainable and washable feminine hygiene products that can be used for up to a year. The compan, staffed entirely by females, also has workshops located solely in rural areas to provide employment for women who have received little education and/or come from disadvantaged families.

Access to affordable sanitary health care is a basic human right and every woman should be given the right to have pads and tampons and proper sanitation facilities during their menstrual cycle. Unfortunately, menstruation is a terrible curse for women in poor countries in Africa and the Middle East, as well as in poor regions in India. Fellow ladies, help your fellow international sisters be able to have a comfortable experience with their periods! Women shouldn’t have to resort to using dirty sand and leaves, tree barks and soiled rags as pads.

You can help these fellow women by reading up more about this issue, writing about this in your own blog and/or even donating to social enterprises that help create affordable pads for women!

Check out some of the organizations or websites below(simply click on the entry), or google or search in YouTube “menstruation third world countries” (hey that’s what I did) to read up more about this disempowering issue.

 

Girls making reuseable sanitary pads in rural Uganda. Photo: Derrick Debru for SNV

Girls making reuseable sanitary pads in rural Uganda. Photo: Derrick Debru for SNV

This a short 5 minute video about how menstruation is perceived in a rural village in Africa.

menstruation matters

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