Today, nearly 743 million children are out of school due to COVID-19. When the schools re-open, will girls go back? The answer, if the Ebola experience is any indication, is that girls will be much less likely to go back than boys. Dropout and school absence rates for girls represent a major loss, not just for the girls and their families, but for their communities and countries.
The most commonly talked about reasons why girls do not go to school or do not finish their schooling range from child marriage, to pregnancy, to the risk of experiencing violence or harassment at school or on the way to school. And many of these factors are likely to become more exasperated as a result of the current school closures. But a less talked about but equally-fundamental factor preventing girls from focusing on or finishing their education is menstruation.
Menstruation isn’t just a factor that causes girls to miss school in lower income countries — it impedes girls from going to school in every country around the world. In the United Kingdom, before the COVID-19 crisis, 49% of girls had missed an entire day of school because of their period and 64% had missed a physical education (PE) or sport lesson for the same reason. In the United States, 39% of girls had skipped school because of their period.
The evidence on the value of ensuring girls go to school is overwhelming and efforts to keep girls learning — whether in school or remotely — are especially important now. But as unemployment soars and many families face increased financial hardships, these numbers are likely to increase as our schools re-open. More and more girls will struggle to access the period products they need to be able to attend school with confidence.
It is not just lack of access to period products that affects learning for girls during their periods. Many also lack the education they need to comfortably manage their menstruation. In a recent Plan International study, just 13% of Canadian girls and women said they felt confident that they knew what to do when they first had their period. Others felt self-conscious, embarrassed or even afraid of being teased by others. Some even lack access to the basic facilities they need to be able to manage their period safely and hygienically.
With increasing and persistent period-related barriers to girls’ education, we need to take action. This includes:
— Continuing efforts to ensure girls have access to the period products and facilities they need to manage their periods safely and with dignity.
— Getting rid of the culture of silence that surrounds menstruation. Talking more openly about periods will help eliminate the stigmas and taboos that perpetuate misinformation and harmful practices. This will also help girls not feel ashamed or embarrassed by something as natural as their periods.
— Educating not only girls and women, but also boys and men (i.e. all of society), so that menstruation is broadly understood and supported.
At this very moment, more than 800 million people are menstruating around the globe. It’s about time we recognize that stigma around menstruation, as well as lack of supplies and education, are preventing girls from completing their education, reaching their full potential and therefore contributing fully to society. We need to act now.