Approximately 7 million girls miss 25% of their schooling each month in South Africa due to menstrual health issues.

 So what does this mean?

Since the release of these statistics, you have probably noticed the hundreds of sanitary product distribution programmes that have been initiated to help keep young girls in school during their monthly cycles. These campaigns have become crucial as there is a direct correlation between a girl being absent from school and her being on her period. What usually happens is that when the school girl is absent from class almost 5 days every month – she begins to feel as if she cannot catch up the amount of classwork she has missed. Owing to this, we have seen that her grades will begin to drop and an overwhelming sense of inability to be an academic student overcomes her.

How does this effect the school girl?

Not being able to attend school in a fast paced high school environment directly contributes to a girl’s self esteem, her beliefs about herself and the effort she puts forward in her school career. Can you imagine what it’s like sitting in a co-ed classroom while you’re on your period and you’re desperately trying to prevent your period from leaking through the newspaper which was your only option to use that morning? Not to mention how detrimental those types of “impromptu” sanitary solutions are to the girls’ vaginal health and hygiene.

It happened to me too!

Being fortunate enough to afford disposable sanitary products when I was in school, I remember that I had to use both a sanitary pad and a tampon at the same time, just in case my tampon got full and the blood leaked out onto my skirt or my pants. Which I may add, happened many times and I would embarrassingly tie my jersey around my waist to make sure that no one was aware that I had leaked. I remember when I was on my period I would completely avoid sport at all costs, even to the extent that I pretended I was sick and go home early or simply bunk out of Netball team practice. This is what I have seen to be normal globally for adolescent girls.

Where to from here?

As a female empowerment, girl child and education advocate, I am in full support of the ongoing programmes and campaigns to address the struggles girls and women face during puberty and menstruation. I assert that the effectiveness of this type of activism must never be thwarted. However, I believe more must be done to advocate for meaningful engagement with the issue at hand. I believe that the current campaigns of distributing disposable sanitary pads are not enough. This does not solve the problem in the slightest but is simply a temporary fix. Elle International is committed to educating girls on sustainable solutions to manage their periods. Where the products and the training given to the girls are exactly what we need – a solution.

What is the South African Situation?

In South Africa, not the mention other African countries, there is a huge gap for health education on puberty, sexual health and adolescence. It is crucial that we engage girls in health education in order to demystify menstrual related myths and break down societal taboos. We are currently doing this through our education campaigns at high schools around South Africa. Many cultures perpetuate myths relating to menstruation. For example, in some cultures, women and girls are told that during their menstrual cycle they should not bathe (or they will not be able to bear children), touch a cow (or the cow will not be able to reproduce), look in a mirror (or it will no longer be bright) or touch a plant (or the plant will whither away). In countless societal settings, menstruating girls are perceived as dirty and less capable.

Most cultures have social norms about how a girl or woman should manage her period, which in some cases, may have harmful implications for the girls’ health. Oftentimes, these norms and myths restrict a female’s participation in society and ultimately makes their lives very difficult by limiting their freedom.

Girls need information!

I have found that talking about menstruation still remains a taboo in most instances. When I do education with girls, at first, the are very shy and feel they cannot talk about the subject of their puberty and sexual health. I have found there is an enormous amount of shame that is STILL attached to even talking about menstruation, which is crucial to young girls learning about their hormones, their health and their bodies.

More often than not, young girls have little knowledge of puberty and menstruation before they reach menarche. This leaves girls scared and ashamed when their periods start because they are poorly prepared (or not prepared at all) to handle the physical and emotional demands of being a teenager and the changes a girl’s body goes through. This includes the knowledge that by menstruating, she is able to fall pregnant if she has unprotected sex. So the conversation around how protect themselves from pregnancy is extremely important.
Start having honest conversations…

I have found that one of the most needed sources of information a young girl has is a trusted source of honest information. Whether it comes from her friend, her cousin, mother or sister… a trusted source of information spoken from an honest experience is extremely valuable for young girls. A 2017 survey, put forward by Always, indicates that 59% of South African teen girls wish they had been given more information about menstruation so they could be better prepared for puberty. This is why puberty  and sexual health education in schools across South Africa (and Africa at large) needs to be addressed and should be taken a lot more seriously.

Who need our attention most?

It is with education in mind that a curriculum that focuses on the most vulnerable, including the youngest and those who are out of school, is of primary importance. The programmes and campaigns we are gearing ourselves towards is focusing on educating and changing the perception of society at large. Mothers, for example, are central to shifting the harmful gender norms that surround menstruation.

We are also focusing on male role models such as fathers who should show acceptance and overcome their often sentiments of ‘I don’t want to talk about this’ attitude, which would strongly contribute to normalising the conversation around menstruation in society.

Without access to sustainable menstrual hygiene supplies, facilities and support, girls are vulnerable to infection and health issues which further contributes to girls being prone to school absenteeism.

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