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November 01, 2012

Study Links Puberty Education, Attendance

by Joe DeCapua

Helping African teenage girls deal with puberty has the added benefit of increasing their attendance at school. A new study in the journal PLOS ONE says simple, low-cost interventions can have long-term positive results.


Oxford University Professor Paul Montgomery led the study of 120 teenage girls in secondary schools in Ghana.

“Women are the driving force of economic development across Africa. And so it’s particularly important to do what you can to keep girls going to school,” he said.

The study showed that the bodily changes brought on by puberty had a monthly effect on school attendance.

“Girls, as they approach puberty and go through it, have a kind of cyclical pattern to their attendance, and that gradually their attendance tails off in the main. And it looked quite a lot like a menstrual pattern. And in contrast, of course, the boys didn’t,” he said.

Montgomery said there were several reasons for the attendance drop-off.

“Embarrassment was a big part of it, certainly, and that was reported by well over half the girls. But ignorance, I think, was a very big part of it, too, and [they] just didn’t know what they were doing.”

In the study, girls in one group received free sanitary pads and lessons on puberty. Their attendance increased by six days over a 65 day term. But the study showed that a second group who did not receive the pads, but did receive the lessons, had a similar increase after about five months. Researchers are not quite sure why yet. They’re hoping to find out in a much larger study now underway in Uganda that will last until 2015.

“So, we already know that education’s important. We know the pads are important. We know that both are important. And we’ll be able to separate out these key issues, and then be able to give some really strong advice for development officers as far as sub-Saharan Africa is concerned,” he said.

The Ghana study showed that teenage girls who did not receive any intervention showed no improvement in school attendance.

Montgomery described the implications of the study as profound.

“I think one of the things menstruation does is that it signals the onset of the girl transitioning into womanhood. And that in turn, I think, sets them up to get pregnant. So I think we’ll be able to help reduce the onset of teen pregnancy, improve their entering the labor market and the economic development of those women,” he said.

He said other research has shown that ensuring education for girls helps lower a country’s population growth, which can contribute to “economic well-being and social stability.”

Montgomery added that African governments have been very receptive to the study’s findings and want to implement the recommendations. Without donor funding, however, the cost would come from either the health or education budget. The Oxford professor said some of the cost could be covered by sanitary pad manufacturers from profits they make in countries such as the United States.