‘Shortages of good sanitation facilities in schools result in high drop out and bad attendance rates for girls.’
Menstrual hygiene is an issue that every woman and girl has to deal with. It is a natural physical process but, unfortunately, in many societies an embarrassment which is perpetuated by a lack of appropriate sanitary facilities, materials and knowledge attached to menstruation. This crosses many cultures, traditions and societies in our world.
“Menstruation has often been dealt with secrecy in many cultures. Such perceptions coupled with poor and inadequate sanitary facilities have often kept girls from attending schools especially during periods of menstruation” (UNICEF, 2008)
Menstruation is a monthly occurrence that requires access to appropriate materials and facilities. Managing menstruation is essentially dealing with menstrual flow and being able to continue with normal day to day activities such as going to school and working. Without this access, women and girls suffer from poor menstrual hygiene that restricts both their movement and their dignity. Girls attending schools that do not have adequate sanitary arrangements (i.e. separate toilets for girls and boys, privacy, physical facilities to dispose of sanitary items or safe and clean facilities to wash sanitary cloths) are excluded. Many girls feel embarrassed to be in school during this time if the sanitary facilities are not present.
“After my menstrual period started, my study is getting weak. Every month during the menstruation time I had to go through mental trauma like what if there is lot of bleeding and blood stained on my school dress and if boys see the stain then they will tease me. I could not concentrate myself in class and it is more difficult at the time of exam. Toilet at our school is not clean and well facilitated for cleaning. There is no place for changing and throwing used pads. Problem has been made complicated by lack of these facilities. It is not my problem only. All my friends are facing same problems.” (Student’s voice in Nepal)
If we want to fulfill our promises to the Millennium Development Goals, especially MDG Number 3 to promote gender equality and empower women, we need to seriously start addressing the issue of girl’s access to education.
“Although poor sanitation is correlated with absenteeism and drop-out of girls in developing countries, efforts in school sanitation to address this issue have ignored menstrual management in latrine design and construction” (Bharadaraj, Pathar, 2004).
An increased emphasis on appropriate sanitation facilities in schools is needed whether this is the appropriate disposal facilities for girls who use pads/ napkins or a private and safe washing area where a girl can wash and dry her menstrual cloths hygienically. Most importantly, menstrual hygiene management needs to be discussed in schools so that girl students feel that school is a place where they can feel comfortable during their menstruation.
This discussion should not only be limited to girls but boys also need to be included in understanding girl’s issues as well as their own adolescent physical changes so that they have an appreciation of the situation and a maturity to respond and support the situation more positively. In the long term, this means increased efforts to influence policy debates at government level together with secured investments and practical actions in appropriate sanitary facilities for students, especially girls.
“Conscious efforts need to be made to address lack of privacy, which is an important determinant for proper practice of menstrual hygiene and also school attendance” (Wateraid, 2009)
Equally, increased emphasis needs to be given to school education curriculums so as to include menstrual hygiene management as a topic for study so that discussions and debate replace silence. For girls who want to use sanitary pads, these need to be made affordable so that girls have the choice as to how to most appropriately deal with their menstruation. If we want to see more girls in school, we need to look at every angle which denies a girl’s right to education and this includes factoring in the specific sanitary needs for girls during their menstruation.
For further reading:
‘Is Menstrual Hygiene Management an issue for Adolescent School Girls?’- A report by Wateraid, 2009 http://www.wateraid.org/documents/plugin_documents/wa_nep_mhm_rep_march2009.pdf
‘Sharing Facts: Useful Information About Menstrual Health and Hygiene’- A booklet produced by UNICEF, 2008 http://www.solutionexchange-un.net.in/gender/cr/res11030801.pdf