In Benin, menstrual hygiene education is key to keeping girls in school

Photo credit: Vincent Reynaud-Lacroze

Without proper education about menstruation, the arrival of a girl's first period can cause fear, distress, shame and discomfort. It can also contribute to a drop in school attendance. A problem that Aide et Action is addressing through training on menstrual hygiene.

In Benin, West Africa, third-grader Deborah was mocked by her classmates for having bloodstains on her clothes and chose to miss school during her period to avoid the embarrassment and shame it caused. "When my khaki dress was stained, my classmates pointed at me and I felt ashamedexplains Deborah. Since then, I have preferred to stay at home until my period is over."

Unfortunately, Deborah is not alone. According to the World Bank, one in ten girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during her menstrual cycle, which is equivalent to almost 20% of the school year. To tackle the problem, Aide et Action is developing training on menstrual hygiene management to better prepare students, their teachers and parents to manage menstruation and keep girls in school.

Breaking the taboo within societies

In many African countries, sex education can be a taboo subject, especially in rural areas where it is still unacceptable for parents to discuss sex-related issues with their children. This is why Aide et Action has introduced the management of girls' menstruation through two of its projects: the School Hygiene and Sanitation Improvement Project, supported by the Claudine Talon Foundation, and the Education Quality Improvement Project in partnership with UNICEF.

"Coping with menstruation is a taboo subject in families"This is the reason why many adolescent girls do not receive any information from their parents about the changes that puberty brings and their periods come as a surprise, leaving them unprepared on how to deal with them. According to her, many adolescent girls receive no information from their parents about the changes puberty brings and their periods come as a surprise, leaving them unprepared on how to manage. "We had a lot of difficulties at the beginning because of the social upbringing that the girls had received. Some say that their parents don't even let them tell anyone that they have had their period. "

Our projects aim to break the taboos surrounding this crucial subject, presenting menstruation as a natural and healthy stage in a girl's development and not something to be feared or hidden.

Adapting school infrastructure

A survey on the management of menstrual hygiene in schools in the communes of Ajarra, Avrankou and Porto-Novo, Benin, revealed that about 15.2% of girls missed classes because of mockery from their peers (29%) and pain in the lower abdomen (69%). The problem is also compounded by the lack of adequate facilities, such as separate toilets for girls.

Without separate toilets (with doors that close securely) for privacy, without a means of disposing of used sanitary products and without water for hand washing, girls face certain difficulties in managing their menstrual hygiene properly, with dignity and privacy in schools. Our project supports the construction of separate toilets for girls and ensures that they are also accessible to girls with disabilities, to ensure education for all.

Menstrual hygiene education

The core of our work on menstrual hygiene education is to provide girls with appropriate support and education from professionals to ensure that they understand their menstrual cycle and have access to hygiene products. To date, we have distributed 640 sanitary pad kits to 325 girls in 50 schools in Benin. As a result, students like Deborah are better informed and advised on menstruation and good practices.

Deborah used to use pieces of cloth to absorb her period, but since she received support from Aide et Action, she has received reusable and washable pads. "The training on washable sanitary towels was very beneficial for me, explains Deborah. Now, thanks to these pads, I still attend classes, even during my period, and I am also comfortable during sports activities. "

In partnership with local organisations, we have also trained project staff and referrers on how to refer girls in need to local health centres for check-ups and examinations. These referrers also provide advice on general menstrual hygiene management and take the information to parents to make appropriate arrangements. To ensure the sustainability of the project and to promote behavioural change, we have also sensitised mothers on the importance of menstrual hygiene management and how to support their daughters.

Through our diverse approach, we are helping girls like Deborah to stay in school. On Menstrual Hygiene Day, 28 May 2021, we want to highlight the important role that education plays in reducing inequality.

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