Menstruation is a fact of life for 2 billion women and girls of reproductive age – yet in many places, girls face serious barriers to managing their periods. Despite the reality that the menstrual cycle is a biological necessity, there are prevalent attitudes in many parts of the world that believe menstruation is dirty and shameful. Much of this stigma is fuelled by a lack of education and awareness surrounding menstrual health. One of the most detrimental effects of the stigma associated with menstruation is that many girls miss school due to their periods. Right now, 62 million girls are not in school and millions more are struggling to stay there, with menstruation being one of the many barriers keeping them from exercising their fundamental human right to education. In fact, a recent UNESCO report estimates that one in ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their menstrual cycle. In Afghanistan and Nepal, three out of 10 girls miss school for the same reason.
1. Prevalent cultural taboos
In rural communities across India, women are not allowed to prepare meals during menstruation because the “uncleanliness” of their periods is believed to spoil the food. In Nepal, the practice of “Chaupadi” (which has been outlawed but still persists in many communities) means that girls and women are removed from the household and forced to live in isolation during the 4-5 days of their periods. As a result, girls cannot attend school. And there are many other similar traditions in rural communities across many developing countries.
Cultural and religious taboos surrounding women’s menstruation centres mainly on shaming girls and women for something they cannot control. These beliefs keep many girls from the classroom due to fear of being caught at school while on their periods and subsequently being humiliated or teased.
2. Lack of menstrual education
Many girls don’t understand their periods – when they happen, what they mean and why it’s no reason for worry. In many instances, a girl’s first period (especially if she gets it at school) can bring on an incredible amount of shock, shame and embarrassment due to a lack of knowledge of the menstrual cycle. Girls may not know why they are bleeding and they may not know who to discuss this issue with – especially if healthcare facilities are located far away. Without parents, teachers or health facilitators to talk to, girls often remain clueless on how to effectively manage their periods with proper sanitary products to prevent accidents and ensure safe hygiene.
3. Decreased awareness among boys and men
Men and boys play a vital role in furthering stigmas associated with menstruation, with girls often reporting being mocked or shamed by boys or male teachers for having their periods at school. One reason for this is that men and boys lack education and awareness about the purpose of menstruation and how ridiculing girls for something natural and biological can decrease their self-esteem. Furthermore, at a household level, men are traditionally the primary decision makers when it comes to finances. Due to a lack of awareness of menstrual health, many fathers are unwilling to purchase sanitary pads because they don’t understand their need or purpose.
4. Limited access to sanitary supplies
With one and a half billion people living on less than $1.25 a day, the cost of sanitary pads can be an expense that is not prioritized in many households.
5. Lack of safe and clean toilets
Even if girls have access to sanitary supplies, finding a clean, safe space to change and dispose of their pads can also be a huge part of their struggle to attend school during menstruation. Many toilets in rural schools around the world lack clean running water and the privacy to ensure that girls aren’t vulnerable or publicly shamed if they need to use the washroom. How toilets play a role in gender equality
6. It symbolizes that a girl is ready to get married
Every 2 seconds, a girl under 18 years is married. And for many girls, the beginning of their periods marks the end of their education because their parents now believe they are ready for marriage. A recent study has shown that when girls have increased access to menstrual health education, sanitary products and safe, clean facilities, they are more likely to stay in school and out of marriage. In fact, for every extra year a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to get married before age 18. How education protects girls from child marriage
Working towards better menstrual health management and awareness
Here at Plan International, we’re working towards ensuring that girls and women around the world can confidently and comfortably manage their periods. This requires a comprehensive approach, addressing their immediate needs for supplies and facilities, and ensuring that they have the knowledge and skills to understand what menstruation is and their options for managing it. It also means developing environments in which girls are supported by the wider community, including boys and men, instead of facing restrictions, shaming and teasing.
Join us and let’s help create a brighter future for girls
Menstruation is just one of many barriers preventing girls from achieving an education, yet we know that when we educate a girl, she can change the world. Every girl has the right to be educated. Join us in helping girls everywhere lead change for themselves!
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