In sub-Saharan Africa, the school attendance rate is among the lowest in the world--only six in ten eligible children make it as far as primary school, and many factors, including sexual harassment by male teachers and pressure from families to become caregivers at a young age, play a role, the biggest factor may be the onset of menstruation. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), more than one in ten school-age girls either skips school when she is menstruating or drops out entirely.
One reason is a lack of clean water and private, functioning latrines. UNICEF is making efforts to build latrines and bring clean water to Africa's schools, but most still lack such basic facilities. And even when latrines are built, the New York Times reports, "toilets for boys and girls must be clearly separate and students who may have never seen a latrine must be taught the importance of using one. And the toilets must be kept clean, a task that frequently falls to the very schoolgirls who were supposed to benefit most."
A lack of sanitary pads may be an even bigger barrier. In Zimbabwe, for example, pads cost half again as much as the the average person makes in a month. As a result, many girls and women make do with newspaper, rags, or camel skin--strategies that often fail, causing considerable embarrassment. Companies such as Proctor & Gamble, which owns the Always and Tampax sanitary-pad and tampon brands, have stepped in to fill the gap, providing free sanitary products and "hygiene and puberty education" across the continent. They're also building toilets in some locations, although the lack of toilets is a huge problem that extends throughout Africa.
Whatever its good intentions (and less altruistic PR motivations), the P&G campaign doesn't solve the endemic problems (a lack of sanitary supplies that are affordable locally; a lack of water and toilet facilities.) That's made it controversial among some women's advocates in the US and elsewhere, who say that providing pads to girls and women merely exports the West's culture of overconsumption and gets girls hooked on using disposable products they can't afford. (Some of these critics, of course, are hawking more sustainable, but less affordable, products of their own). Others have raised objections to the "corporate" nature of the campaign, arguing that self-interested corporations can't be expected to put the interests of impoverished African girls before their own.
Those criticisms are fair enough, but it seems to me they miss the real story. Right now, thousands of girls are being forced to choose between humiliation and health risks at school or a lifetime of poverty, illiteracy, and diminished choices. Yes, in an ideal world, it would be better for women to rely on local sources for sanitation and toilet facilities. In an ideal world, it would be better for women to use sanitary napkins made of local materials that could be reused. In an ideal world, there would be no stigma associated with menstruation in Africa, and girls wouldn't have to hide in shame when they hit puberty. But at the moment, campaigns to hand out free, Western-made sanitary supplies and build toilets and water pipes with Western money offer girls opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have had--to finish school, learn to read, and maybe live better lives than those of their parents. With those opportunities, perhaps they can design sustainable, local systems to help girls get through school without the involvement of Western corporations like Proctor & Gamble. But raising awareness, eliminating stigmas, and providing desperately needed supplies isn't a bad start.
Thanks Erica for your insightful article and raising awareness of this important topic - addressing the travails of just being a girl-child among the billion strong 'extreme poverty' humans inhabiting our planet.
I would like to bring our reader's attention to Dr. Pathak's work in latrine design in India - http://www.sulabhinternational.org/pg01.htm
His contention is that almost 60% of the hardship of poverty is relieved by proper sanitation. He and his team designed a simple, sustanable, organic latrine pit design that is working wonders in India and has been for years. Please note that India's sanitation is still a huge problem with no end in sight. Neverthless, there are over 10,000 nominal pay public toilets and thousands of private latrines built by the above non-profit. If some one donates a sum of $2500 to $5000, I believe, they can construct a public facility to serve a few hundred persons and provide nominal income to about three families to maintain the facilities.
The principle is that the latrine has three pits that are sized to be filled up in about 18 months. The system just switches a pit after 18 months. 36 months later, the first pit contents are converted to pure black fertile soil that can be dug up. It works, they are a legitimate non-profit with transparent operations and worth looking into.
If there are funds available, experimenting with a 25 mile radius area with adequate toilet facilities complete with bore wells for bathing and latrines is an actionable idea. Any takers? funders? doers? talkers? thinkers? I personally do not have the funds nor access to the local communities in Africa. Engineers without Borders (University of McMaster chapter) does have access.
Interesting that this topic and article did not elicit any comments but the respose to the article on Nano car was vigorous.
Thank you for addressing this topic.
In preparation for the birth of my first child, I purchased a set of Gladrags, Lunapads (washable,cotton menstrual pads in varying sizes: lite, heavy, overnight), and the Keeper (latex cup that replaces the tampon-empty the blood into the latrine rather than dispose of the bloody cotton tampon).
Fastforward to my second child, eight years later...and I am still using the same set...total investment less than $100 per girl/woman for at least 10 years of coverage!
Of course, it is essential to have sanitary conditions to wash your hands and wash the products.
The waste that results from used tampons, menstrual pads, diapers, etc. creates a major waste and health/sanitation problem.
Check out the alternative, sustainable products for yourself! If we all switch to these, then maybe these companies will create a matching program for girls in distress...if they are not already doing so.
I have actually met Dr. Pathak of Sulabh International at the Museum of Toilets in Delhi; he was a very sweet, intelligent, down-to-earth man and I think the work he's doing is very valuable. If anyone finds themselves in India, the museum is definitely worth checking out. It's a little out of the city so not very many people go there, but it's really fascinating and deserves much more traffic.
My favorite menstruation solution is sponges; they conform to your body better than tampons, they absorb fluid really well (duh) and, unlike with the Keeper, I don't get the uncomfortable sense that my blood is being held inside me in a little bowl. While there may be environmental impacts of sponge cultivation, one or two little cosmetic sponges can last for over a year, and I think that's probably better than all those pads and tampons.
Also, an issue I'm not sure they addressed: how are the girls disposing of these things? Isn't that just as humiliating? I'm not very educated on the topic, but I assume most rural areas don't have garbage pickup trucks. So isn't this just creating a bunch of waste no one will know how to deal with? Will a pile of wrappers, applicators and used products just sit at the edge of the village and pose health threats?
This is exactly the kind of practical problems that needs to be addressed in developing countries. Not sexy, not fun, not headline generating. But very real.
It also raises a big ethical dilemma.
Thanks Erica for bringing this to our attention. As women, we all know what a huge issue this must be for all these girls.
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