by Sabene Gomes.
I want to talk about menstrual health. And yes I know that declaring this at the very start of this piece will mean that a fair few people recoil in shock and immediately shut this window. If you are one of those people I challenge you to hold off on that action, even just for one paragraph.
I am raising the element not to talk about free bleeding or menstrual cups which FYI is a choice to be made by each individual based on the best way for them personally to practically address their menstruation. What I want to discuss today is the link between a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products and a gap in prevalence of adolescent girls attending school.
When you think about children not being able to obtain an education you tend to consider barriers to their access being around a lack of infrastructure, ie no actual schools for them to attend. Or a deliberate bias which keeps girls out of school based on their gender. You think of children with disabilities not regularly attending school due to inaccessible infrastructure meaning they cannot even get through the front door.
All of these elements have been identified and are attempting to be addressed by NGOs, governments and schools alike. However, one of the biggest barriers of equal access to education for girls between 12 and 18 isn’t any of these factors. Instead it relates to an inability of girls to manage menstruation in hygienic and dignified ways; in basic terms, they lack access to affordable sanitary products which keeps them out of school.
To demonstrate this further all you have to do is think about the practical implications of menstruation each and every month. For most girls and women in rural settings, they simply cannot afford to allocate a portion of already depleted household income to buy pads. Instead they tend to use cloths which while having to be washed and dried out in public after each use, also have the possibility of leakage onto school uniforms. My mind goes instantly to school uniforms in my native Sri Lanka which are white… as in bleached white. Can you imagine the shame involved for adolescent girls if they leak menstrual blood through their uniforms?! Even as adult women will live in a ridiculous fear of this, as if branding ourselves bleeders in public! Even though everyone is thoroughly aware that this is a natural process of the female being.
Added to this is a lack of safe and accessible WASH infrastructure on school grounds meaning that girls simply don’t have a private place to change menstrual health products throughout the day. So what all of this equates to is that on most instances girls simply stay at home every month when they get their period. If you do the maths on this that’s 3-5 days, a week, each and every month that they do not attend school.
I know the topic might be a bit taboo or cringe worthy but we need to address the facts when we speak about equality of opportunity when it comes to education. In many developing countries, import taxes reflecting GST charges push prices up on sanitary products meaning that attempting to purchase these on the market for rural women or women from low income households is near impossible. Let’s try to remember that sanitary products are not luxury items and access to affordable merchandise is a basic health right for all women.
So the next time you want to raise awareness and advocate for girls rights to education, remember the barriers that exist to this around menstrual health. Let’s continue to collectively raise our awareness on this issue and hold duty bearers to account in terms of access to and provision of affordable menstrual health and management products for all women worldwide.
OH and lets take the ick-factor out of speaking openly about menstruation, menstrual hygiene and menstrual health. Period. (see what I did there,.. :P)
*Featured Artwork courtesy of Lexi Bella
Sabene is a 1st generation Sri Lankan-Australian writer, blogger, activist, development practitioner and all round foodie. #caneat