Mar(k): Travel, Hiking, and "Doing Good"

musings on our life of travel and volunteering

Keeping the Girl Child in School

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Searching for Innovative Ways to keep the Girl Child in School

By Mar Knox

(article originally published in the June 2010 edition of the ADVOCATE)

Sometimes there are taboo subjects that people don’t like to talk about.  But being open about sometimes difficult issues can bring about positive changes in society.  One such example is menstruation, and its impact on keeping the “girl child” in school.

In addition to family pressures to stay at home to help with chores or child rearing, girls that do try to persevere with their education may end up dropping out once they reach puberty, at the onset of menstruation.  When a young girl starts to menstruate, she may experience negative attitudes which result in her being prohibited from cooking or even banished to the countryside during her period.  As Felicia Odame, Executive Member with the Alliance for African Women Initiative (AFAWI) explains, “when you have your menses, the male relatives will not even like to eat your food”.

From an educational point of view, studies have shown that more than half of all girls who drop out of primary school do so for lack of separate toilets and easy access to safe water.  When girls start to menstruate, having separate sanitary facilities in schools becomes even more crucial.   Trying to keep young girls in school is so important; but ensuring adequate sanitary facilities, for both boys and girls, is a long term project that will take years, if not decades.

In the shorter term, one project has commenced, with the intent to increase retention rates for female JHS students in the Northern, Brong Ahafo and Upper East regions through improved menstrual hygiene practices.  A project undertaken by AFAWI Ghana distributed sanitary pads to young women in these areas, in conjunction with training in menstrual hygiene management.  Additionally, incinerators were built to safely dispose of the used sanitary pads.  Construction works to improve existing toilet facilities and urinals have also been carried out, resulting in more hygienic conditions for both boys and girls attending the subject schools.

Another project is also being undertaken in Ghana by Said Business School (University of Oxford) to investigate how effective the provision of sanitary products is in raising school attendance and improving academic performance among girls.  Professor Linda Scott observes that “To overcome community beliefs about the unimportance of educating girls will take at least a generation of intense effort on the part of NGOs and governments, but the simple intervention of educating the girl about her period and providing her with a reliable, clean, and private way to manage it, could have a dramatic impact on female educational achievement within only a few years.”

Traditionally, women and pubescent girls in rural areas have used cloth rags as a means of protecting their clothing during their monthly menstruation cycle.  In some areas, cloth is scarce and the impoverished women can only afford two pieces.  This means each night the rag will be washed, with the hope that it will be dry by morning.   However, as Felicia Odame, explains, “in many parts of Northern Ghana, water is an issue.  Rinsing out these used cloths each day is not very hygienic, and it is even more of a problem when water is scarce.” Of course, in damp climates or during the rainy season, the cloths may not dry overnight, and the women end up using unhygienic, damp or soiled cloths.

As part of the study conducted by Oxford, research indicated that post-pubescent girls were missing up to five days every month due to inadequate menstrual care.  During the second phase of the trial, sanitary pads were provided to the girls along with education about menstruation and hygiene.  Six months along, the study found that the girls were missing significantly less school than before the test.  On average, the rate of absenteeism was cut by more than half.

Of course, the provision of sanitary pads to these young girls is not without its challenges.  One of the issues faced is how to effectively dispose of the pads in a hygienic, safe and culturally appropriate manner.  There are environmental issues associated with sanitary pad use, so this is an area of further work for policy makers and NGOs not only in Ghana but also in other developing countries.

One solution, as evidenced by the AFAWI initiative, is to install incinerators as a means of effectively disposing of the soiled sanitary pads.  However, other alternatives, including more environmentally friendly options like using re-usable sanitary pads need to also be considered.

This is an issue that is not unique to Ghana.  In Kenya, girl absenteeism in school is also a problem; to the point where it seems unlikely that Kenya will be able to achieve it’s Millennium Development Goals of Education for All (EFA) and Gender Parity by the looming date of 2015.  The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) indicates that more than one in ten school-age girls either skip school during menstruation or drop out entirely.

In addition to lack of availability of sanitary pads, many girls may not be able to afford them, even if they are available.  In Zimbabwe, for example, pads cost half as much again as the average person makes in a month.

In Ghana, there are additional issues that also need to be addressed.  One obvious query is how to provide sanitary pads to communities that do not have regular or easy access to markets where such products are available.  Another issue is how to dispose of used pads with minimal environmental impact; particularly where incineration is not available.

However, the benefits of overcoming these obstacles can be profound.  The girls in the Oxford study reported an improved ability to concentrate in school, had greater confidence and participated more in everyday activities while menstruating.  All of these improvements led to increased self-esteem, which will help these girls in many aspects of their lives, not just at school but also at home and within their communities.  Additionally, negative experiences relating to soiling and embarrassment declined.

Overall, the results of these initiatives are very promising, and justify further research being undertaken to determine ways to assist young girls in their quest for education with dignity.


Written by Mar(k)

July 6, 2010 at 2:47 pm

10 Responses

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  1. In February 2011, we will be providing 66 JHS girls in the Ofaakor region of Southern Ghana with “kits” that contain 4 reusable sanitary pads, underwear, and the products needed for washing and storing the pads. We are hoping that the reusable pads will solve the problem of how to dispose of the pads, while keeping the girls in school!

    Lisa Tuttle

    January 23, 2011 at 12:08 am

    • Lisa, thanks so much for the information! best of luck with your initiative – it sounds wonderful, and will be great that these young women will have an opportunity to use your kits! Let us know how you get on! Kind regards, Mar(k)


      January 23, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    • Hello, I was interested in starting a similar project. Is there a way I can get in direct contact with you?

      Afia Mensah

      June 26, 2013 at 3:05 am

      • Hello Afia! Thank you for your interest in this great initiative! This particular project was not “ours” – we were merely reporting on some excellent work that others had done. So unfortunately we can’t provide any additional information. Best of luck to you in your pursuit of a similar project! Best regards, Mar(k)


        June 27, 2013 at 4:22 pm

  2. Uganda doesn’t have anything like this but we need it too,Hey Mark send me and email and i ask you a few questions

    Aisha Nakato

    February 10, 2011 at 9:48 am

    • thanks for reading, Aisha! Feel free to post your questions here and we will do our best to answer them! thanks – Mar(k)


      February 11, 2011 at 4:57 pm

  3. pls i have a girls group i handle on SRH issues, can you get me some sanitary towels for them?


    March 12, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    • Hi Aisha. we are supportive of these initiatives, but are providing these reports for info only. we do not have access to pads for distribution. however, we could suggest you look at the previous comments. Lisa Tuttle seems to be in Ghana, and she seems to be able to distribute pads? We suggest you try to contact her at Ghana Children’s Fund. Best of luck! mar(k)


      March 12, 2012 at 7:46 pm

  4. greetings Mark, I would like to be of service on this project and have some ideas. please email me at: TaTanisha (Edith Weaver) – by the way, are any of these rural areas in coconut growing country?

    TaTanisha (Edith Weaver)

    March 12, 2013 at 6:31 am

    • hi Edith. Many thanks for your comments! We were not directly involved in this program, but reported on it only, as we felt it was a good one. If you look at the comments above, you can see that perhaps Lisa Tuttle may still be working on this project. Perhaps try to click on her name, and you may be able to contact her directly. As to the coconut availability in these areas – I would expect that some of the locations would be where coconuts are also grown. Best of luck, and thanks for your support of this important initiative! kind regards, Mar.


      March 22, 2013 at 5:02 pm

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