When boys and girls reach puberty, their bodies go through many physical changes. But for girls in Africa, the onset of menstruation can bring with it discrimination, unwanted sexual advances and the end of their education. Now a pilot study in Ghana says it doesn’t have to be that way.
The study says when free sanitary protection is provided to secondary school girls there is a sharp drop in absenteeism and increased participation in household chores and socializing.
Oxford University Professor Linda Scott led the study, which involved more than 180 girls in four remote villages in Ghana. She says menstruation is often a taboo subject.
“I think it’s a combination of its links to sexuality and its links to bodily outputs. We don’t usually like to talk about bodily outputs or sexuality. And of course the fact that it affects females also has a tendency to make it more stigmatized, particularly in a developing nation context,” she says.
Cost and lack of availability are two reasons rural girls in poor countries go without sanitary protection.
Scott says, “It’s so much something that people take for granted. And even in the poor nations, people who would be middle class, and therefore government workers and NGO workers, they also would tend to take it for granted…. Also because it’s a taboo subject, it’s not something people talk about. So it tends to be invisible.
What’s more, Professor Scott says girls are perceived differently once menstruation begins.
“Part of the problem is that the onset of menstruation in remote areas of Ghana is taken as signifying the coming of actual adulthood in a way that we don’t recognize it in the West. We don’t think of a 12 or 13-year-old girl as being marriageable or sexually available. But actually in this context it’s a signal that she’s both,” she says.
A girl without sanitary protection faces serious consequences.
“Her biggest problem is that if people know about this it’s not just an embarrassment and a laughing matter. It’s something that may actually put her in danger. And at this time also families often feel it’s time to withdraw their economic support for the girl to continue in school. So she suddenly starts having quite a bit less support for her continuing education,” she says.
Many of the girls, she says, simply get discouraged and drop out of school. But they face a physical risk as well.
“Sexual harassment and sexual predators are a big problem even for very young girls. Once they’re known to be sexually ready, from that perspective, they may be the victims of unwanted sexual advances. And unfortunately, very, very often it might come even from their teachers,” she says.
In the long-term
Scott says the long-term consequences are “huge.” While education for both boys and girls is critical for a nation’s development, ensuring girls remain in school can bring many benefits.
“There is quite a lot of data at this point to show that it has positive impact on economic development and productivity. But in particular, very quick impact on fertility rates, infant mortality, disease transmission, nutritional level and of course just generally improve the individual girl’s chances of having a happy and prosperous life,” she says.
The Oxford professor says government and NGO programs providing free sanitary protection could be a cost-effective way of ensuring girls’ education. But she says it would have to be done in such a way that is culturally sensitive. Also, she says communities need to be made aware of the importance of secondary education for girls.
Similar but longer studies are being considered for other African counties, as well as Muslim countries in Asia.