Every month more than 300 million girls aged between 10-14 may dread the arrival of their period. A lack of adequate guidance, toilet facilities and sanitary materials for girls to manage their menstruation in schools causes girls to experience shame, fear, confusion. They face many challenges attempting to manage their menstruation – insufficient information, lack of social support, ongoing social and hygiene taboos, and a shortage of suitable water, sanitation and waste disposal facilities in schools. So many of these girls just stay home until they finish bleeding. They can miss a week of school every month.
In schools women and girls can face a hidden discrimination, with female students and teachers unable to manage their menstruation with safety, dignity, and privacy. This affects their ability to succeed and thrive within the school environment, which then reduces their economic potential and future health. Talk with girls in this age group and many share stories of experiencing fear, shame and embarrassment while in school. They struggle with lack of water, soap, privacy, space to change, adequate time to manage their menstruation comfortably and safely, and lack of access to hygienic sanitary products and sometimes underwear.
Female school teachers also struggle to manage their menstruation comfortably and privately in schools without adequate water and sanitation facilities. Many schools have more male administrators and teachers who may be unaware of or reluctant to talk about the challenges that schoolgirls and female teachers are facing. Boy students also report having little understanding about menstruation, and some tease and bully girls because they do not understand girls’ behaviours during menstruation.
Live & Learn works with schools in the South Pacific to improve water, sanitation and hygiene access, including the issue of menstruation. Menstrual hygiene is addressed through three areas:
- Providing menstrual hygiene management guidance
- Improving the physical and social facilities in the school
- The distribution of menstruation products
Live & Learn staff spend time with school leadership and teachers, encouraging open discussion about menstruation, and a participatory assessment of school water and sanitation facilities for girls and female teachers. Information is provided to teachers, school leaders, parents and students on the impact of girls staying home from school during their monthly menstruation. The schools then plan activities to reduce the social taboo concerning discussion of menstruation. Activities have included discussion groups, student clubs conducting awareness and information sessions to other students and parents, and special events in the school that focus on respect, dignity and raising funds for menstruation products.
One partner school launched a special flag to promote discussion about menstruation – pink and black (because girls like the colour pink but wear the colour black when they have their period). Another school created information posters and conducted awareness sessions to other students. Teachers in another school used drama and role play to share stories of their experience with menstruation and the importance of respect.
When Live & Learn starts working with a school a participatory assessment of water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure and practice is done based on the UNICEF Bottleneck Analysis approach (insert link to blog article about BNA). All of our partner schools have inadequate facilities for women and girls to manage their menstruation with dignity. The school is coached to develop an action plan to improve water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure and services, leveraging all sources of support the school can access. Live & Learn facilitates this in some partner schools through connecting the school to community-based sanitation enterprises who can provide improved school toilet facilities.
In one school in New Ireland, PNG, all 300 students and 13 staff were sharing two pit toilets (a toilet:student ratio of 1:150) The school management worked with the Kulangit sanitation enterprise to construct a permanent toilet block with a septic tank and two more improved pit toilets. The school now has eight toilets – four for boys and four for girls – and a toilet:student ratio of 1:37. Parents, school management, teachers and students contributed money and labour towards the cost of the toilet block. There were many immediate positive impacts, but one father told Live & Learn that since the opening of the new toilet block he is no longer worried about his girls having their period at school.
Accessing menstruation products is an ongoing headache for women and girls. Menstruation products are expensive, and items like food and other basic needs are priorities. In some places sanitary products are just not available. In many countries menstruation products are taxed, and not considered essential items. Many girls have to use reusable cloth, but they struggle to wash them without adequate access to soap or clean water. A study in Nairobi, Kenya, found that girls aged between 10-19 reporting having sex with older men to earn money to buy sanitary pads. Many women and girls can miss work or school due to vaginal infections caused by unsafe menstruation materials.
Schools partnering with Live & Learn are addressing access to menstruation products in different ways. Some schools have students bring products at the beginning of the year to the school that are available for girls when they need them. Other schools have conducted fundraising events to purchase sanitary pads. In Vanuatu Live & Learn connected our 8 partner schools to the Mama Laef Washable Sanitary Pad project. This is a project provides Washable Sanitary Pad kids sewn by local women. The kits last for three years.
Student Water, Sanitation & Hygeine (WASH) Clubs are established in all Live & Learn partner schools. During recent evaluation activities a Live & Learn staff member shared the following story:
I was working with students in a school WASH Club in Kavieng, New Ireland. We had finished working through some games to get their feedback on how the water and sanitation situation had improved in their school, so I told the kids they could return to their classes. Everyone stayed seated on the floor, the girls looking at each other to communicate some kind of quiet message. I understood that they wanted to tell me something more, so I waited. Finally through some kind of secret eyebrow ballot one of the girls knew she was selected as the spokesperson, so she stood up and cleared her throat a few times before speaking: “Before the school built the new toilets us older girls always stayed home every month during our menstruation. Now we come to school and don’t miss any days because the new toilet gives us a place to go.”
This was said in front of all the boys, and they didn’t laugh or roll their eyes, but sat respectfully and just listened. I complimented the girl on being brave enough to stand up and say this in front of the boys. Then I asked what was the biggest impact of being able to stay at school during their period. All the girls answered together: “We don’t miss out on classes, so our grades are better and we do better at school!”