By Neha Basnet
I recently watched an interview on YouTube of Mrs. Twinkle Kumar a.k.a. Mrs. Funny Bones and Manjit Gill, the Chief executive of Binti Foundation. Mrs. Kumar is the producer of the movie, Padman, played by her husband, Akshay Kumar. She told the itv News, “the movie aims to tackle a taboo in some parts of India – that of women having periods and having access to sanitary pads and tampons. It’s not just a problem in India, in UK 1 in 10 girls and women aged 14-21 cannot afford sanitary products and in Africa and India, girl’s school dropouts are high due to the lack of access to the sanitary pads.” Apart from promoting the movie at different news channels such as BBC and NDTV India, Mrs. Funny Bones has also promoted the movie in places like Oxford University. There is no doubt that sanitary hygiene is a global issue. Periods are a natural and unavoidable part of most girl’s and women’s lives. However, the dominant idea or assumption is that girls drop out of schools because of a lack of access to sanitary pads.
Mensuration is increasingly becoming a contentious topic these days. The UNESCO booklet on Puberty Education and Menstruation Hygiene Management (PEMGM) informs that many girls drop out of schools altogether once they begin menstruating. However, the PEMGM stresses that the school dropouts in young girls are mainly due to lack of access to sanitary pads. There are abundance of reports, articles, advocacy campaigns, and so on pitching for more efforts to make sanitary pads accessible to young girls in order to reduce the number of young girls dropping out of school. However, this very idea that having access to sanitary pads will increase school attendance, improve performance in education, and ultimately better lives for girls and women diverts focus from the real problems. This increasing problematization of lack of access to sanitary pads and its impact on young girls’ education needs to be revised.
My particular interest in the idea that access to sanitary pads will increase school attendance was ignited when I worked as a researcher for a social entrepreneurial incubator in Nepal. I was assigned to conduct needs assessment and products assessment for a social enterprise, whose project’s aim was to provide girls and women high quality, affordable, and reusable sanitary pads in order to reduce the number of school dropouts. However, the field scenario was different than the assumed hypothesis. In order to provide the much required evidence and support to the product (as it was my best intention to support the social enterprise in every way possible), I looked at the reports on girl’s school dropouts in relation to lack of access to sanitary pads. I came across an article from the World Bank titled, “Globally, periods are causing girls to be absent from schools”. In this article, the authors use several reports to substantiate their statement. If you look at these reports carefully, the direct relation between school dropouts and lack of access to sanitary pads is nowhere to be found. Nevertheless, the reports point to the consequences of lack of proper school facilities such as water, safe toilets for females, and enough knowledge about stigma attached to mensuration.
Mrs. Funny Bones also mentions the relation between access to sanitary pads and school dropout in Africa and India. A study on Kenya by Plan International reports that about 65 percent of women and girls cannot afford sanitary pads. In 2012, the report further highlights, “20-30 percent of girls in Kenya reported missing days of schools because of lack of access to sanitary pads when they were menstruating”, thus linking the lack of access to sanitary pads with school dropouts or absenteeism. Similar study reports can be found in the case of Nepal. Menstruation and Education in Nepal Project conducted a research study together with the University of Michigan in 2009. The report presents a randomized evaluation on the basis of distribution of menstruation cups (and menstruation sanitary products) to young girls in rural Nepal. The results found that “the barriers for young girl’s schooling and activities during menstrual periods were lack of access to sanitary products.” Further, there are several other scholarly works and reports about African girls dropping out of schools and their lack of access to sanitary products. This particular phenomena has given birth to many philanthropic organizations that work on providing sanitary pads to school girls with the aim of reducing school dropouts or absenteeism, thereby improving levels of education.
However, there is no evidence to suggest that there was a perceptible improvement in girls’ attendance after sanitary pads were made accessible to them.
Talking publicly about women’s menstruation is a taboo not only in developing countries but also in developed countries like the UK and the US. However, the continued rationalization of young girls’ school dropouts with lack of access to sanitary pads needs more exploration. It is a fact that young girls have a higher dropout or absenteeism in comparison to boys in developing countries. Monica J. Grant, Cynthia B. Lloyd and Barbara S. Mensch conducted a Malawi School and Adolescent survey (MSAS) to examine the individual and the school level factors associated with menstruation-related school absenteeism in 2013. The MSAS conducted a school-based longitudinal survey with adolescent students, enrolled in co-educational public primary schools in the southern districts of Machinga and Balaka. The participating students were aged 14-16. The study found that “although one-third of the girls missed one day of the school at their last menstrual period, there was no evidence of menstrual periods in relations to lack of access to sanitary pads that account for female absenteeism.”
So, there is no study to prove definitively that menstruation accounts for school absenteeism or school dropouts. The meaning of menstruation varies across cultures. In Malawi, Nepal, and India, it is widely interpreted as a sign that a young woman is no longer a child and is physically ready for sexual activity or marriage. In case of Nepal, there are some parts or regions were menstrual girls are seen as “cursed” or “impure”. In some parts of Nepal, an age old tradition called Chaupadi, deeply rooted in Hindu tradition, is still practiced. Chaupadi is practiced during a girl’s menstrual cycle, when they are separated from others in many spheres of normal daily life. Women face various discriminatory practices during Chaupadi, when they cannot enter houses, kitchens, and temples. They are also not allowed to touch other people, specifically men, animals, vegetables, plants, or even fruits. Similarly, women practicing Chaupadi cannot milk cows or buffalos, and are not allowed to drink milk or eat milk products. This implies that they stay away from others and schools until they are done with their menstrual period. Thus, in the case of Nepal, a tradition like Chaupadi is the main reason for girls’ school absenteeism and dropout and not lack of access to sanitary pads, as is commonly believed.
Further, in the reports discussed above no gynecological health of girls and women was explored. Bodies and its functioning differ from person to person and in most cases for girls when menstruation, they go through a great deal of physical pain and as well as mood swings. There could be other factors like lack of access to water, safe toilets for girls, and others that are the reasons behind the increasing/continued school dropout and absenteeism of young girls. There is no straight answers as to why young girls drop out of schools or have high absenteeism. Surely, lack of access to sanitary pads is definitely not the main reason behind it. A thorough exploration and investigation is required in order to understand the factors behind it.
Neha Basnet is a Ph.D. student at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.
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