Girls' education: empowerment through hygiene

Students at a primary school in Zambia look in to watch members of a Water and Sanitation club perform a skit. Photo by Jon Warren.  

It’s time to talk about feminine hygiene

Story by Katie Hackett

I remember missing a few days of school over the course of my education. Seeing me doubled over with cramps, my mom would take pity on me and sign me out of class. Usually, after popping a few Advil and burying myself under blankets, I’d emerge by noon feeling pretty okay, and pleased with the prospects of an afternoon at home.

But here’s the thing: I could have stayed in school. We had decent washrooms. I was stocked with the drug-store supplies I needed. I knew my plight was normal; I had girlfriends to commiserate with and a supportive mom to confide in, in case questions came up.

For millions of adolescent girls, that’s not the case. Of all the barriers keeping girls from a good education, perhaps the most senseless is the simple fact of gender. Girls who reach puberty menstruate. And if menstruation is a painful speed bump for girls in Canada, it’s a much larger roadblock for girls in the developing world.

Schools without running water or private latrines make it difficult to manage “that time of month” with dignity, especially when supplies like feminine pads are out of reach. Cultural taboos impose a sense of shame and prevent girls from asking questions. It’s not surprising when they choose to save themselves the embarrassment and discomfort by staying home. Unfortunately, staying home often leads to dropping out altogether.

In Africa, UNICEF estimates that one out of 10 girls misses school during her period. A study in Ethiopia found that 51% of girls miss between one and four school days each month. In India, 88% of menstruating women don’t have access to sanitary pads, while approximately 12% of girls drop out of school because they don’t have proper latrines.

Why girls leave school (in their own words):

“[Girls] fear that maybe boys will laugh at them when they make their uniform dirty, so they just remain at home.”

—A Zambian student, when asked why her friends skip school during their periods

“Imagine being at a place where the cycles could start any time and you had nowhere to go and help yourself, with all eyes in the class stuck on you.”

—Malita, 19, who dropped out of school and now has two children

In recent years, development organizations across the board have begun prioritizing girls’ needs when it comes to their periods. Here are a few ways World Vision is supporting girls and keeping them in school, with your help.

What a girl needs: the supplies to keep her healthy

When Kaushayla and her friends received pads from World Vision, their hygiene habits changed for the better. Photo by Annila Harris

In India, Kaushalya is the leader of a teen girls youth group. They teach others in their community about sanitation, and they recently received hygiene kits from World Vision with essentials like soap, toothbrushes and feminine pads. Last year, 800 girls in the region received similar kits.

“Women used to use cloth instead of pads during their period,” says Kaushalya, 18. “After we received the hygiene kits, we started using sanitary pads. It is more hygienic and is disposed of after usage. Now we are in the habit of buying our own.”

Empowering girls to take charge

These girls perform an educational skit on hygiene for a captive audience—both in and outside the classroom. Photo by Jon Warren

Water & Sanitation clubs in schools are one way students are taking ownership over their hygiene issues. At this primary school in Zambia, girls have a separate shelter for bathing during their monthly periods and a garden where they grow vegetables to sell to buy feminine pads and towels. School attendance has improved since the club started and—as the principal has noted—when attendance goes up, so do students’ grades.

Giving dignity through privacy

Miskia (left), 14, provides her classmate with feminine pads in the school’s “pad room.” Photo by Kelley Lynch

If school latrines are unisex, girls are more likely to stay home because they feel vulnerable. Miskia’s school in Ethiopia is working to change that. With new girls-only latrines and a “pad room,” where female students can get feminine pads during their periods, girls are attending school every day without fear of embarrassment.

It turns out, that is exactly what girls need.