A quality high-school education can transform a girl's future, yet around the world, many adolescent girls miss school or even drop out altogether for one simple reason: menstruation.
Schools often lack the supplies and sanitation facilities girls need for managing their periods. Girls without adequate health care may feel discomfort or pain. Shame, stigma and misinformation may discourage girls from attending school while menstruating and prevent schools from teaching healthy attitudes about menstruation. Many girls stay home to avoid being teased. For girls growing up in refugee camps and conflict areas, the challenges are even greater.
UNICEF and partners are working around the world to support menstruating girls by providing sanitation facilities and educational resources and encouraging the community support girls need to stay in school and to feel good about their bodies and themselves.
Girls should not feel ashamed of their healthy, normal development
School-age girls need a few things to manage menstruation without feeling ashamed and while continuing their normal daily lives. First of all, they need information for themselves, their classmates and their communities about what menstruation is, and sometimes what it is not. They also need clean supplies, privacy, disposal facilities, soap and clean water, and access to health care — basic things that can make a great difference to a girl.
Many girls greet their first periods with alarm, without knowing anything at all about menstruation. In Nepal, for example, local superstitions prevent menstruating girls from going to school, looking in the mirror, trimming their nails or touching flowers, fruit, drinking water or pickles, among other things. Some communities still follow the traditional Nepali custom of sending menstruating girls to live alone in unheated chhaupadi huts, leaving them vulnerable to exposure to the cold, smoke inhalation and attacks by animals, with sometimes fatal results. Lack of accurate information leaves room for confusion and embarrassment, the repercussions of which can be far-reaching for girls and their communities.
Boys need to learn about menstruation too
Shame and misinformation about menstruation are a global problem, in both high- and low-income countries. A recent report found that menstruation taboos in East and Southern Africa can keep girls and women from touching water or cooking, attending religious ceremonies or engaging in community activities. Involving whole communities fosters a better understanding of menstruation. Communities are more successful at questioning taboos and reducing stigma when parents and leaders, and boys as well as girls, share in the effort.
"We go to girls club together to learn about menstrual hygiene." Boys in #Ethiopia join forces with girls to break the silence and show that #MenstruationMatters.#NoMoreLimits → https://t.co/sWbe8ZEvGZ #MHDay2018 pic.twitter.com/SJkRukXzsm— UNICEF (@UNICEF) May 27, 2018
UNICEF focuses on and empowers girls and women. An important way to do that is to educate boys. Comic books and video programs, peer mentoring and group activities reduce teasing among young people. Community-wide measures help prevent menstruating girls from being restricted in their activities. Better understanding buoys up girls as they grow, with support from their peers and communities.
Schools can help by providing a healthy physical and social environment
UNICEF offers school-based solutions that achieve a double purpose. In addition to education — including education about health and hygiene — schools can be a place to find water, toilets, privacy and support. At the Kaswenthe Primary School in Chitipa, Malawi, UNICEF and partners built a private changing room for adolescent girls, equipped with soap, buckets, clean water at all times. Volunteer counselors from the school's "Mother Group" also offer advice and handsewn sanitary pads to ensure every girl remains in school.
"Most of the girls were encouraged to stay home by their parents upon reaching puberty," says Mercy Gondwe, Vice Chairperson of the Kaswenthe Primary School Mother Group. "The next thing you hear is the girl is pregnant or she is married. And that was really sad for our community. We realized that during our days, we did the same thing and now we are struggling with poverty. We didn't want our children to go through the same. We wanted things to change in our community and we realized that we are the people that can make a difference in the lives of these girls."
All school students need to talk about puberty. At schools that offer information and provide for privacy and cleanliness, girls gain dignity and self-respect along with an education. "Girls have learned since childhood that talking about menstruation is innappropriate and shameful," says 17-year-old Aigerim, who participated in a UNICEF-sponsored peer-to-peer training program on menstrual hygiene management in Kyrgyzstan. "But the training opened my eyes; I began to see that it is a natural biological process, and nothing to be ashamed of."
Age-appropriate education about hygiene, cleanliness and sexual and reproductive health develops knowledge and encourages positive attitudes and behaviors. Health education also helps foster the expectation that relationships should be supportive and equitable. Clean water and private toilets also contribute to a safe social environment where girls are treated with respect and understanding.
Supporting adolescents in the present is important to the future
Communities around the world need better education about menstruation. Programs that have been successful need to be expanded and adapted to different cultures and conditions.
At schools that offer information and provide for privacy and cleanliness, girls gain dignity and self-respect along with an education.
With help, UNICEF can increase access to:
- Information, so that people — especially young people — know that menstruation is normal and healthy and can be managed without fear or shame, and without missing out on an education
- A healthy environment, with clean water, soap and disposal in privacy, along with access to health care
- An adolescence that is easier and safer for girls growing up
UNICEF is helping girls to attend school in communities that support their healthy development, and helping schools to be prepared and equipped to teach learners about puberty, with facilities for managing menstruation. Girls need to know that their periods don't have to hold them back.
You can make an immediate difference for girls, too. For just $35, you can send a Girls Empowerment Pack with enough menstrual pads to give five girls the protection and peace of mind they need to stay in school.
Top photo: Adolescent girls speak candidly about menstruation and learn how their bodies work at a UNICEF-backed health education initiative in India's Jharkhand State. © UNICEF/UN0215391/Vishwanathan