Nepal: new study says impact of menstruation on school attendance is overstated

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 [1] 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.

Mothers and daughters learn about modern sanitary products in Chitwan, Nepal. Photo: Krishna Ghimire

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.

[1] 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

6 responses to “Nepal: new study says impact of menstruation on school attendance is overstated

  1. Padam Bhandari

    Karnali zone of Nepal is the zone of cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. Karnali society suffers from severe systematic inequities along class, caste/ethnicity and gender dimensions. Class and caste/ethnicity often overlap and reinforce each other. Almost all development actors in Karnali agree that gender, ethnicity and caste-related differences are present almost everywhere in the region. This intensifies poverty for the affected groups. No matter which community they belong to, women are at the bottom of social hierarchy in terms of access to resources and positions of power in the public sphere. This analysis is based on experiences, not the statistical data.

    The menstruation is the natural phenomenon for the girls. However it is one of the aspects of gender disparities. A large number of girls simply miss school during their period and this translates to average girls losing almost a full month of schooling in a given academic year. Almost all schools in Karnali lack adequate sanitation facilities which are necessary not only during a girl’s period but at all times generally. These include sufficient water, adequate toilet facilities and proper disposal facilities for sanitary wear.

    The menstruated girls are even socially out casted. There is little privacy in their houses. There are no separate rooms in their houses. The houses are so close and the living space is too small. Therefore, a separate hut that is called “Chhaupadi” is made little far from the village or a cow shed is used during the menstrual period. This is difficult for women who have to live in Chhaupadi or in the animal shed. The lack of privacy together with poverty is contributing factors that encourage girls and young women to behave differently. These factors definitely affect the academic achievement of many girls in Karnali and hinder their right to education. There is no organization that specially works to address menstruation management and to ensure that the gender disparities in education as well as other aspects of development activities are not interrupted by their menstrual periods.

    Padam Bhandari

  2. Padam Bhandari

    In addition to lack of girls’ toilets with menstrual hygiene facilities , there are many other reasons why adolescent girls don’t attend school or drop out of school. One of the reasons in Karnali region of Nepal is the following:

    It is bad to invest in girls: Sending girls to school is still considered economic burden. Although the number of girls entering schools is increasing at primary level, very few girls attend secondary schools or higher. Many girls do not have the opportunities for quality education.

    At times of agriculture season and during the labour shortage, girls in Karnali are the first to be pulled out of school. Some parents consider the education of boys to be more important than that of the girls because they believe that girls often have to work or look after children as their mothers try to improve household income.

    When I tried to gather the information, I was surprised to find that there are very little or no specific data about the situation of boys or girls in Karnali. The exact data is useful to provide feedback in adjusting policies.

    The problem of early marriage and early motherhood is still prevalent in Karnali. This means an awful lot of missed opportunities in education. Still many girls and women have not joined the formal workforce from Karnali. Investing less in girls in is one of the reasons for Karnali to being in the bottom of the human development rankings.

    Government has no concrete plans to provide girls with quality education, better jobs, access to land or property, and leadership opportunities. There is urgent need to provide jobs to women in Karnali, because women bring 90 percent of their income back into their household, whereas men bring only 30 to 40 percent.

    Padam Bhandari

  3. There are general information about menstrual Management in the schools, butI would liketo to know more specifically about Mentruation Management practical module in schools, if you kindly provide me such modules/guidelines/packages I will be greatefull of your support
    Thanks and regards,

  4. Pingback: Why we need to talk about periods: menstrual hygiene management in development practice | Devpolicy Blog from the Development Policy Centre

  5. Pingback: Is Bollywood’s Pad Man movie too good to be true? | Sanitation Updates

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