In countries around the world, menstrual hygiene and inadequate sanitation facilities are causing girls to miss classes. Across Africa, a 2016 study by Human Rights Watch estimated that one in ten African girls missed school during menstruation. Yet many countries in the region are still not doing enough to address the issue, with a distinct lack of effort towards providing single-sex toilets. With late enrolment, many girls reach the end of primary school well into their puberty. Yet, our latest Gender Review found that only 9 of 44 countries with data had single-sex facilities provided in over 75% of primary schools. In Benin and the Comoros, only 4% of schools provided access to single-sex toilets.
In some cases, the story hits the news, with devastating stories of children falling into pit latrines in South Africa, schools being closed altogether due to poor hygiene in Uganda or students being shamed by their teachers for menstruating in India.
A simple obvious change could involve providing free menstrual hygiene products as New York is planning to do. This idea is also being rolled out by the AAP government in New Delhi and the ShePad scheme in Kerala, covering 300 schools. Since 2011, the Kenyan government has also been budgeting about $3 million per year to distribute free sanitary pads in schools in low-income communities. In the United Kingdom, protests about “period poverty” started at the end of last year when reports emerged of girls in Leeds missing school because they couldn’t afford menstrual hygiene products.
Some forms of accountability can help make sure adequate sanitation facilities are provided as well. For example, regulations requiring separate toilet facilities for boys and girls can help. Yet an analysis of regulations in 71 education systems by the 2017/8 GEM Report showed that only 61% of them required sex-separate facilities in public schools and 66% in private schools. Much more must be done to advance equality to grant girls the dignity they deserve.
Yet, even regulations alone are not sufficient to ensure facilities are available. Although separate sanitation facilities are written into laws in Bangladesh, a survey found that 41% of girls aged between 11 and 17 were missing three days of school every month because of a lack of adequate sanitary care, including a lack of waste bins, soap and water. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch also found that girls in Haiti were going home to change the materials they used to manage their menstruation, resulting in them missing school.
School inspections can help make sure that schools adhere to regulations. However, inspections do not always consider gender issues as was the case in Bangladesh, for example, where sex-separate sanitation facilities are only occasionally evaluated.
We considered waiting until May 28th to launch this blog, which is Menstrual Hygiene Day. But periods come once a month, not once a year. The blind eye being paid to menstruation is what is enabling it to continue being a barrier to girls’ rights, including to education.