By Lucy Graves, COCO Volunteer
COCO believes that education is vitally important in creating opportunities for breaking out of the cycle of poverty, yet there remains so many avoidable barriers standing in the way between children and a quality education. UNICEF estimates that 1 in 10 girls in Africa miss school due to their periods. Over the summer of 2018, I looked at the impact of menstruation on the education of girls in Kenya and Tanzania, and found that in these countries there is a lack of material provisions, adequate sanitation facilities and proper sexual health education for effective MHM (menstrual hygiene management). One way in which we can encourage girls to stay in school is by promoting MHM through providing support on a material, practical and educational level.
As you can probably imagine, a lot of my research made for quite uncomfortable reading and I was often squirming in my chair on learning several details about the realities these girls face whilst menstruating, such as searching through rubbish for used sanitary pads, or using dried cowpats (Jewitt and Ryley, 2014). I found myself reluctant to copy these details into my notes due to the nature of these discoveries. This made me realise that I too am part of the wider problem that contributes to the idea that women should be ashamed of their bodies’ natural processes, which is why so many girls in East Africa miss school due to their periods.
Kirk and Sommer (2006) argue that although many organisations have highlighted the connection between sanitation, education and gender equality, they often fail to explicitly mention menstruation as an issue. This self-censoring by so many organisations regarding menstruation not only downplays the difficulties pubescent girls face in areas of East Africa, but also feeds into larger discourses teaching young girls to be secretive about and ashamed of their bodies. Girls often cite embarrassment and inability to talk to their teachers or peers as a reason they are absent from school while they are menstruating. The recent breakdown in Kenyan and Tanzanian cultural and family practices which historically taught girls about their periods has left pubescent girls with a knowledge gap, which is now up to schools to fill (McMahon et al. 2014). Having conversations to educate schoolchildren about periods not only equips girls with the knowledge they need to manage their periods, but also tackles myths and taboos about menstruating women which will, in the long-term, help girls be more accepting and understanding of their bodies. Empowering girls through sexual health education can be a way of discouraging them from skipping school whilst on their periods. To effect change, it is down to us to recognise the issue, and begin the conversation, in an attempt to overcome such taboos. COCO has recently employed a sex education coordinator in Tanzania, an important step towards educating girls about their menstrual cycle and encouraging them to stay in school.
It is not only lack of education that is dissuading girls from attending school whilst on their periods. A lack of adequate sanitation facilities means girls are unable to practice MHM while at school, as they often do not have access to running water, private toilets or showers, a particular issue as it is custom in these countries for girls to bathe regularly whilst menstruating (McMahon et al. 2011). This lack of sanitation can contribute to girls’ feelings of shame and embarrassment in school, meaning they often prefer to stay at home whilst on their periods. Additionally, for many girls in Kenya and Tanzania sanitary pads are an unaffordable luxury, especially due to the patriarchal control of the household budget (Kirk and Sommer 2006), meaning women’s needs are not considered or prioritised. This means that girls often have to resort to unhygienic and ineffective products, sometimes even dried cowpats. Again, this can make girls feel embarrassed and uncomfortable at school, meaning they may choose to be absent.
Addressing these issues, and listening to the voices of girls experiencing such issues when menstruating, will mean COCO can continue their mission of providing quality education to all children. Through employing a sex education coordinator in Tanzania, COCO are encouraging girls to discuss their bodies and seek help around their menstruation and can continue to promote gender parity in education.
Read the full report here.
Jewitt, S. and Ryley, H. (2014) ‘It’s a girl thing: Menstruation, school attendance, spatial mobility and wider gender inequalities in Kenya.’ Geoforum 56, pp. 137-147.
Kirk, J. and Sommer, M. (2006) ‘Menstruation and Body Awareness: Linking Girls’ Health with Girls’ Education. Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), Special on Gender and Health, pp. 1-22.
McMahon, S. et al. (2011) ‘‘The girl with her period is the one to hang her head’ Reflections on menstrual management among schoolgirls in rural Kenya.’ BMC International Health and Human Rights 11(7).
UNICEF (2013) Progress on sanitation and drinking-water - 2013 update. Geneva, WHO.