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Are Menstrual Periods Causing Girls to Drop Out of School in Africa?

By Marni Somer

The answer is, of course, not an easy yes or no.

There are numerous barriers to girls' completing their education in sub-Saharan Africa, including school fees, a preference for educating sons, safety concerns due to a school's distance from home, and social pressures for girls to drop out of school and get married once they reach reproductive age. But the effect of girls' periods on school attendance has long been neglected by researchers.

The limited existing literature and my research from Tanzania suggest that pubescent girls' attendance and participation are hindered by "girl-unfriendly" educational environments: schools lack adequate, safe and private latrines and water supplies; schools continue to be dominated by male teachers and administrations; there are no private spaces for girls with menstrual discomfort to rest; and girls lack effective menstrual management materials (such as sanitary pads) and practical information on managing menses. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 57 percent of all girls are enrolled in primary school, with a significant drop-off to only 17 percent enrolled in secondary school.

Many girls are reaching puberty around the end of primary school. For some ethnic backgrounds, menarche is still a signal to families and communities that a girl should drop out of school and prepare for marriage. However, for many girls, it is the gender-discriminatory school institution that is hindering academic success. Much could be done to make schools more "girl-friendly," thereby contributing to girls' chances of successful academic achievement and future life careers. Priorities include safe, private and adequate numbers of sanitation facilities, affordable sanitary materials for all girls in need, environmentally sustainable disposal mechanisms and basic puberty information.