A new study stating that menstruation has little impact on school attendance casts serious doubt on the popular assumption that the provision of sanitary products can significantly affect the education gap. That assertion has been criticized by some Nepali experts, noting that the study was carried out in one of the country’s most developed urban areas.
“Such a claim can only undermine the much-needed menstrual hygiene and management to be introduced in schools by the government and integrated in the overall hygiene intervention,” one expert, who asked not to be identified, said. [IRIN, 2 May 2010]
The study  was part of the Menstruation and Education in Nepal project, supported by the University of Michigan, University of Chicago and Harvard University. Research in four schools in Chitwan District, nearly 300km west of the capital Kathmandu, revealed that girls missed only about a third of a day per year because of their period. This is much less than the 10 to 20 percent quoted by other sources such as the World Bank.
As the story goes, girls miss significant amount of school during menstruation, largely because of lack of modern sanitary products, and this contributes to lower attendance rates, eventual failure, or dropping out.
Part of the appeal of this explanation is that the fix is so easy. There is no need to change attitudes about female schooling, to provide funds for uniforms or textbooks, or to construct new schools closer to girls’ homes; instead, the menstruation theory suggests simply providing sanitary products could significantly affect the education gap.
At least one sanitary product manufacturer has jumped on this fix: In 2007, Procter & Gamble announced its support for the Protecting Futures Program, which provides sanitary pads and hygiene education to girls in Africa. Other organizations (the Clinton Global Initiative, for example) have pledged millions of dollars to finance better sanitary products in the developing world.
Researchers Emily Oster and Rebecca Thornton say the claim that girls miss significant amounts of school during their periods is largely based, up till now, on anecdotes and assumptions.
We started by asking girls whether they missed school during their period; similar to other studies, over half reported ever missing school days due to menstruation.
Rather than leaving the analysis there, however, we quantified the amount of school missed because of periods by collecting detailed information on dates of menstruation and school attendance for the entire school year.
Although girls in our sample were indeed less likely to attend school on days they had their period, the effect is very, very tiny. On non-period days, girls were in school about 85.7 percent of the time; on days they are menstruating, they were in school 83.0 percent of the time (a difference of only 3.2 percent).
The researchers also found that proving better sanitary products – in their case menstrual cups – made no difference in closing the (very small) attendance gap.
Based on the evidence on schooling and in our randomized study, we conclude that better sanitary products are not likely to be an effective “quick fix” for girls’ education. This does not suggest we should limit our efforts at increasing schooling for girls, but it does point to the need for quantitative data to evaluate what efforts will be the most effective.
 Oster, E. and Thornton, R. (2010). Menstruation, sanitary products and school attendance : evidence from a randomized evaluation. Forthcoming article in: American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. Full paper
Source: Emily Oster and Rebecca Thornton, Are ‘Feminine Problems’ Keeping Poor Girls Out of School?, New York Times Economix, 27 Apr 2010