Maureen, 16, from Uganda has missed a lot of school due to her period: “My period started when I was 15,” she explains. “My mother never talked to me about menstruation, and when I first saw the blood, I was scared. My friends told me that when I start my periods I should use a rag. They didn’t explain it – they just told me to do it. So I tore up my old clothes and made the rags to use. Every month I would miss three or four days. I was fearful of going to school when I had it.”
Most girls start their period between the ages of 10 and 18. From then on, menstruation is a monthly reality for decades, and yet in many cultures, it is surrounded by stigma, shame and silence.
Menstruation leads to missed school days
In developing countries, women and girls like Maureen face serious challenges when it comes to managing their periods. They lack access to affordable, hygienic menstrual products and are forced to use improvised materials, such as rags, that are uncomfortable and can lead to leaks and infections.
They also may lack knowledge and understanding about what menstruation is, and their options for managing it. To make matters worse, often, social taboos about menstruation exclude women from certain activities, such as cooking or praying, and expose them to bullying and teasing.
For school-age girls, this situation can have far reaching consequences. Schools in developing countries often don’t have clean, private, safe latrines; many have no separate latrines for girls at all. Even when latrines are available, there is frequently no clean water within or near toilets or bathrooms, and there is nowhere for girls to clean up and discreetly dispose of used menstrual products, or to wash and dry reusable sanitary pads.
As a result, in some cases, girls skip school during their periods. For example, it is estimated that the price of menstrual hygiene supplies is the driver of 36% of girls’ absenteeism from school in Rwanda. Some girls even drop out of school altogether.
This can have a detrimental impact on girls later in life, as girls with fewer years of education earn less and are more likely to be married as a child. Conversely, educated girls and young women are usually healthier than girls who didn’t go to school; they also tend to have healthier children and will share their knowledge and health seeking behaviors on health and hygiene with their children.
Organizations like Plan International and the Global Partnership for Education support girls and young women in developing countries in many different ways, including breaking the taboos surrounding menstruation and expanding schools’ facilities to accommodate it.
GPE helps countries conduct in-depth education sector analyses that identify barriers to gender equality and strategies for overcoming them. Plan implements a range of specific projects, from providing hygiene kits including pads and underwear to girls during emergency situations, to constructing separate toilets for girls in school that address their menstruation-related needs.
Simple solutions in Uganda and Ethiopia
In Uganda, Plan International has partnered with local social enterprise AFRIpads, to help Ugandan girls and women better manage their menstruation.
AFRIpads trains Ugandan women to manufacture reusable sanitary pads, then Plan purchases the pads and sells them to local vendors at a subsidized rate. This allows vendors to sell pads to girls and women in the surrounding areas for an affordable price and still make a profit. The project is improving access to sanitary pads, while providing vendors with a reliable source of income.
Viola, 15, keeps her Afripad kit in a bag hanging on a wall at her home in Tororo in eastern Uganda. She used to use expensive disposable pads, and when there was no money, she’d use rags. “AfriPads are good because they have kept me clean,” Viola says. “I’ve been using them for seven months.”
The AFRIpads partnership has been so successful, Plan developed other partnerships with social enterprises. One such enterprise, BeGirl has developed washable waterproof knickers that have a pocket that can be filled with any available, safe, absorbent material. These knickers have been distributed in Ethiopia, and the majority of girls reported increased comfort and a reduction in the number of leaks experienced. In addition to providing these period panties, Plan also trains girls and teachers on the topic of menstruation.
Through innovative projects such as these, Plan is committed to breaking the stigma around menstruation and making sure the issue is on the global agenda.
That’s why it’s time to talk, and it’s time to act. Period.