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Breaking Barriers to Girls’ Education: Menstrual Hygiene Management

By Nneoma Nwankwo, Virginia TechGirls listening at a menstrual hygiene management workshop in Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria. Photo credit: Nneoma Nwanko

In many cultures, menarche (the onset of menstruation) is considered a young girl’s first foray into womanhood. However, in many parts of the world, girls and women are made victims of their menstruation, and this is reflected in the hindrance that it often poses to education and thus economic opportunities in agriculture. When girls don't go to school due to menarche, they don't learn the knowledge and skills that will help advance them in an agriculture career.

Menstrual hygiene management (MHM) aims to ensure that young girls and women are able to manage their periods hygienically, comfortably and safely. This requires several factors: availability of proper information and sanitary pads or cloths, access to healthcare, presence of sanitation infrastructure (such as private toilets or latrines) and protection from harmful socio-cultural norms that demonize women during their periods. MHM advocates for the elimination of the shame and secrecy that plagues many women during their periods.

In a school setting, lack of MHM leads to menstrual-related absenteeism. Girls intentionally skip school because of poor infrastructure, their fear of being taunted by male classmates and lack of health care in the schools to address bodily pains associated with menstruation, such as cramping.

The I-3 Approach to MHM

In assessing solutions to the MHM issue, a major focus is on “breaking the silence”—that is, eliminating the harmful socio-cultural attitudes attached to menstruation and menstruating women. When negative and condescending norms are destroyed, it will be easier to create meaningful discourse that will lead to more lasting solutions. Governments, NGOs and individuals must begin to view MHM as a human rights issue, as it can directly or indirectly hinder a girl’s access to education. When the issue is examined from this perspective, leaders at all levels can address it systematically through the I-3 approach:

  • Impart: Ensuring that proper menstrual hygiene practices are taught in schools and are promoted in community settings
  • Invest: Ensuring that leaders allocate the appropriate funds to provide safe sanitation infrastructure while investing in social businesses that provide environmentally sustainable low-cost pads
  • Implement: Creating laws to protect women from harmful socio-cultural myths surrounding menstruation and prioritizing MHM in the community

Many organizations are now addressing MHM in a variety of ways: Sustainable Health Enterprises and AFRIpads are creating sustainable low-cost pads, the Water Sanitation Supply and Collaborative Council is conducting training courses on MHM across Francophone West Africa and One Acre Fund is training its field officers in Kenya to offer AFRIpads’ reusable pads for sale to farmers. The most recent solutions to the MHM issue include provision of sanitation infrastructure (toilets and latrines) that provides clean water for girls to wash their hands after changing their pads and mirrors for girls to make sure they do not have blood on their clothes.

However, if we are to eliminate the barriers to education that socio-cultural norms and lack of information and health care infrastructure create for girls, we need concerted effort and the integrated I-3 approach to MHM.

See the Good Practice Paper, “Ensuring Education for the Girl Child: Best Practices in Menstrual Hygiene Management” on InnovATE’s website.