How menstrual cycle increases drop–out rate for girls in Schools

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As a WOUGNET staff on Volunteer Program with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), I participated in the conference `Beijing +20 Conference on Education and Training for Women and Girls` held by UN Women and Makerere University School for Women and Gender Studies on Feb 2015. A presentation on ‘Women and Girls in Science and Technology’ was made by the WOUGNET Director, Dr. Dorothy Okello. WOUGNET was introduced in the exhibition areas. One of the other exhibitions caught my attention, is on reusable pads called Afripads whose products can last a full year. At first, I did not understand why these were exhibited at that place since I have never imagined that girls affected by poverty could not afford to buy disposable sanitary pads. My colleague explained to me that in reality, there are tons of girls who drop out of school due to menstruation. This fact impressed me and shocked me as well.

Since ‘universal primary and secondary education’ has been introduced in Uganda, the public school fees has been free and school enrollment has been increasing. However, despite the free education, the dropout rate is still high and the biggest challenge is that students living in poverty cannot afford school materials. Moreover, girls’ school dropout rate is higher than boys’. The major reason for girls’ school dropouts is menstruation. Most girls who have no sanitary pads have experienced their blood leaking during school hours and boys laughing at and bullying them, which causes them to feel so much embarrassment that they are either absent from school during their monthly menstrual periods or drop out of school. Since it was so hard for me to believe this fact, I asked my colleague to let me visit local schools in the rural area and conduct interviews. My colleague took me to the Pallisa district to visit several schools and meet some girls already dropping out of school as well as their parents in April 2015.

First, the school teachers told us that when girls have their periods, teachers give them permission to be absent from school since there is no water and no private space for girls to wash their clothes or replace their sanitary materials. Teachers try to stop boys from bullying girls but they don’t stop. In addition, menstrual hygiene and sex education have never been conducted at schools, and teachers do not know how to train students in these matters. Therefore, girls and boys are not presented the opportunity to learn them at school.

During one of my field trips in Eastern Uganda, I also interviewed the school girls and found out that most girls do not have disposable pads such that they often use old clothes or other unsanitary alternatives which causes them to face a risk of infection. I was told by some of them that they had no information about menstruation prior to their periods and that they felt scared when they first experienced their menstruations. One of the girls said ‘there are moments when I start my periods and all I can think of is that maybe I should get pregnant so I don’t have to go through this hustle and embarrassment from friends but then another thought comes in which is that I have to stay in school’. However, all of them said that they would like to attend school without any absences. In addition, we interviewed school boys, and found that all of them have participated in bullying girls when they see the girls’ leaked blood. They said that they understood menstruation but haven`t gotten any sex education. After the interviews, they promised us not to bully girls anymore. I hope they will keep their promise.

One of the girls who had already dropped out of school said that no one had taught her about menstruation in school or at home. Her first period happened at school one time, and her friend told her what to do but other classmates simply laughed at her and bullied her. After this, she never went back to school although she liked schooling. After listening to several girls who have had similar experiences, we were strongly convinced that these girls had the desire to go back to school. Their parents also wanted them to go back to school but were lacking the money to buy school materials and sanitary pads.

This caused me to wonder how this lack of knowledge of hygiene and menstruation arose since menstrual cycles have been experienced for centuries. We then listened to an elderly lady who told us that `boys and girls used to attend schools separately thus boys had never known our periods. We used to use cotton wool and old cotton clothes as pads and regularly cleaned and ironed them. However, this method has not been passed on to younger generation and teenagers’ parents don`t know what they have to teach their children.`

After interviewing them, I realized that the adolescent girls are frequently insulted and laughed at because of their periods. If we, as Japanese individuals, accidently leak and feel ashamed, it is just a temporary accident. But for Ugandan girls, there is no way to avoid the shame that accompanies the situation. One of the challenges for them is the lack of information about menstruation and menstrual hygiene management. Since the schools do not provide them with menstrual hygiene training and sex education, boys do not learn to respect girls. In my opinion, it is not only the schools but the entire community including the parents that should be held responsible to create a system supporting girls. In addition, boys should be given sex and gender education to raise awareness on the respect that girls are owed.

By,

Maiko Onhishi

JICA Volunteer with WOUGNET 2015