Why Are Girls in Sub-Saharan Africa Self-Selecting Out of School?

Nothando Mudziti* is 13-year-old primary school student in Mlichi Village, Hurungwe.

A tall, slim girl with bright eyes full of life and joy, Nothando was orphaned at the age of 3, when she lost both her parents to HIV/AIDS.  She has lived with her grandmother ever since.  Unfortunately, their family is not a wealthy one, and her grandmother often struggles to pay for many of Nothando’s basic necessities, not least of all her school fees.

A month ago, the girl’s menstruation cycle started for the first time, leaving her frightened and confused.  Though she soon learned that the dark brown blood that stained her underpants was not only natural, but normal, it came with a new set of financial struggles.  Her grandmother couldn’t afford to buy her sanitary products to wear in her underwear, thereby preserving her clothes.  Nothando soon learned that though menstruation was perfectly normal, its normality was contingent upon being concealed from the awareness of others.

As a result, she had little option but to hide herself away as her monthly cycle began.  To save herself the embarrassment that comes with “messing” oneself, Nothando began to miss school every time she menstruated during school term.  This story is, like menstruation itself, so common as to reflect the standard for many young girls living in rural areas.  And the impact of menstruation on education for the girl child is quick to widen an already existing gap in opportunity between genders.

In the 1 to 7 days of the menstrual cycle, girls without sanitary products are more like to stay home from school rather than risk spending a day in the classroom in the hopes of not being shamed.  This is a lack of choice that masquerades as the opposite, because statistics show that 20 percent of rural schoolgirls do not attend school during their menstrual period specifically because they cannot afford sanitary wear.  In remote areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, sanitary pads are considered a utility for the wealthy, despite the fact that nature does not discriminate on the basis of socioeconomic status.  Almost all girls with functioning reproductive systems will menstruate in their lifetimes.  The majority of them will experience them monthly.  Sanitary items to mitigate free bleeding are not a luxury, but a necessity for every girl child.

Consideration must be given to the social and anatomical limitations of girls during menstruation in African communities.  In most rural areas, a lack of proper sanitary facilities leads to open defecation in public.  In spaces such as this, girls have nowhere to dispose of their used sanitary products, which makes them vulnerable to public attention at its least invasive, and vulnerable to public interference at its worst.

Due to the poverty gap in so many of these communities, girls have to become inventive to preserve their modesty.  Many will line their underwear with cow dung, rugs, or leaves during their cycle, which, due to their profoundly unsanitary nature, can carry serious health consequences.  Health experts have confirmed that the use of rugs, leaves, and cow dung as makeshift sanitary tools can cause bruises, vaginal thrush, discomfort, urinary tract infections, gynecological diseases, and even cancer.

Conversations around sexual and reproductive health and rights across Africa are evolving, but slowly.  There is an increasing understanding of the importance of condoms in sexual relationships to prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted infection or unwanted pregnancy, and condoms are increasingly becoming available to the general public at no cost.

But when it comes to menstruation, there remains a great deal further to go.  Nothando’s experiences mirror those of countless young girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, too many to quantify and too many to deem the shame around menstruation an acceptable cultural hegemony.  Social presumptions about menstruation must change.  If we are to achieve this, we must advocate for free sanitary pad access – first for the under-privileged, and then for everyone.  As beneficial as free condoms are for positive sexual health practices, we must also consider the potential for positive impact if a similar program can be comprehensively applied to the needs of young girls.  If for no other reason, we must consider these products as a viable mechanism to bridge gaps in educational frameworks.

This is why the Voice of Africa launched the Red Fairy Campaign, which channels the oftentimes taboo color of menstrual blood in accordance with the traditional faitytale guardian character of the fairy godmother.  The campaign calls upon all godparents, parents, guardians, and benevolent adults to ensure continuous education for girls by donating sanitary wear towards the underprivileged.  The campaign launches in April 2017 in Botswana and Zimbabwe, with the hope of engaging Red Fairies across the globe as every girl goes through the cycle in their life.  The project accept donations from not only individuals, but also companies and organizations, with the understanding that we cannot achieve equal access to education for as long as the biological gap – a mere matter of anatomy – inhibits girls from embracing every academic opportunity they can.

With the provision of just a few sanitary pads, we can keep a girl in school another week, month, or year longer.  The scope for impact is enormous, and its social and economic benefits can be felt across the country and the continent.  Together, we can keep the girl child in school.

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the girl in this story

Join our Voice of Africa Red Fairy Campaign here by donating pads you can help shape the girl’s future.