UNITED NATIONS, May 27 2016 (IPS) - Around the world girls are struggling to stay in school when their menstrual hygiene needs are forgotten or ignored, yet the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and education sectors have remained reluctant to address the issue.
Menstrual Hygiene Day, celebrated on May 28, aims to raise awareness of the fundamental role that MHM plays in enabling women and girls to reach their full potential in areas such as education.
Globally, 52 percent of the female population, or 26 percent of the total population, is of reproductive age. For all of these women and girls, menstruation is a natural, monthly reality. However, as the subject continues to be taboo in societies around the world, access to MHM materials remain limited.
According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), in Kenya alone, approximately 50 percent of school-age girls do not have access to sanitary pads.
“Boys used to laugh at me and I eventually simply stayed home whenever my periods started,” Joan stated.
“The girl with her period is the one to hang her head. Children and boys will make fun of her,” one young girl told researchers in Kenya.
The problem is similar in neighbouring Uganda.
“I used to use clothes that I would cut from my old T-shirts to keep the blood from staining my dresses, but they were not enough and blood would still stain my clothes,” 16-year-old Joan told Catholic Aid organisation Caritas Lira in Uganda.
This prevents girls from participating and attending school, as they feel shame and fear humiliation from their peers.
In Nepal and Afghanistan, 30 percent of girls report missing school during their periods. In India, over 20 percent of girls drop out of school completely after reaching puberty.
Lack of access to private toilets and clean water also hinder school participation.
“Girls…lack access to clean, safe private toilets. There is no clean water within or near the toilets, which means there is nowhere to clean up and discreetly dispose of used menstrual products,” said Plan International USA’s Director of Water, Sanitation and Health Darren Saywell.
Trem, a 14-year old girl from Cambodia, told Plan International that she has to go home to change her sanitary pad due to poor facilities in her school. Though her house is close by, she said that other girls have to travel further so “they don’t bother coming back to school.”
The exclusion of women and girls from education is costly, many note.
“When girls drop out of school at an early age, they are less likely to return to education, leaving them vulnerable to early marriage, violence and forced sexual relations,” Saywell said.
According to the UN’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), girls who remain in secondary school are six times less likely to marry young. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would decrease by over 60 percent if all girls had secondary education.
UNICEF also noted the larger health benefits that come with educating women and girls, including decreases in maternal, infant and child mortality rates as well as poverty.
Some organisations have begun to address the issue including Caritas Lira and Plan International which works with schools and communities to raise awareness of hygiene and teach them how to make reusable sanitary pads.
However, MHM continues to be left out of the agenda from both the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and education sectors, even in development and emergency relief programmes.
WaterAid, an international clean water and sanitation organisation, found that women and girls are often excluded from decision-making in such programmes, resulting in little control over matters such as money to spend on MHM materials.
“Most people, and men in particular, find menstrual hygiene a difficult subject to talk about. As a result of these issues, WASH interventions often fail to address the needs of women and girls,” WaterAid said in a report.
“If the situation does not change, it may not be possible for development programmes to achieve their goals,” they stated.