Supporting girls' menstruation to improve their attendance at school

Photo credits: Aide et Action

In Benin, many schools do not have latrines or water points. This lack of sanitary infrastructure makes many girls uncomfortable during their menstruation period, even forcing some of them to abandon their schooling. On the occasion of the World Menstrual Hygiene Day, Aide et Action looks back at its project to improve hygiene and sanitation in schools, which was developed in part to address this issue.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), unsafe water and the lack of basic hygiene and sanitation cause the death of more than 525,000 children under the age of five each year and cause health problems and delayed development for thousands more. But the consequences are also felt at school level, where girls, more affected by the hygiene problems linked to their menstruation, often miss classes. Unfortunately, in Benin, access to drinking water and sanitation facilities are far from guaranteed for the majority of schools in rural areas.
Improving hygiene in schools through appropriate facilities
To change the situation, the project to improve hygiene and sanitation in schools in Benin, implemented by Aide et Action in partnership with the Claudine Talon Foundation, was developed in 70 school groups in five communes (Adjarra, Avrankou, Aguégués, Porto-Novo and Sô-Ava). Well received by schoolchildren, parents, teachers and the decentralised education services, it has enabled the construction of 87 latrine blocks and the installation of 62 hand-washing stations. The project has also promoted access to drinking water through the direct connection of 18 schools and more than 2,300 schoolchildren have been made aware of hygiene and sanitation issues. However, it is the girls who have been more specifically supported.

15.2% of girls missed school because of their period

In Africa, sex education is often taboo and this is even more so in rural areas. This is why supporting girls in managing their menstrual hygiene has been an important part of the project. We had difficulties at the beginning of the project in my school because of the social education that the girls received," explains Hortense Saka, headmistress at the Ecole Primaire Publique Adjarra Centre. But as teachers and mothers, we got them to talk about it. We were able to overcome these difficulties. For example, one pupil who was very reluctant about the subject finally joined the information and awareness group and it is to me that she now confides.

A survey on the management of this problem in schools in the communes of Adjarra, Avrankou and Porto-Novo revealed that about 15.2% of girls missed class because of their periods. The main reasons for this absenteeism were pain in the lower abdomen (69%) and mockery by classmates (29%). Often surprised in class by bleeding, the girls are embarrassed with dirty clothes, while the schools offer no framework for them to clean themselves in privacy. The project has therefore integrated sexuality into the construction plans of the latrine blocks, providing a space for girls and another for boys. This privacy is a guarantee for equality and non-discrimination in schools.

Advising to reassure

To address the issue of female hygiene, resource persons have been identified and trained to refer girls to the nearest health centre. In this way, they can be examined by a qualified health worker and the information can be passed on to the parents so that they can make the necessary arrangements. These resource persons also provide advice on how to manage the period, including precautions and strict adherence to hygiene measures. Mothers are also trained to manage their daughters' menstrual hygiene. The project has enabled the distribution of 640 sanitary napkin kits to 325 girls identified in 50 schools in the communes of Adjarra and Kogbomè. From now on, the girls are informed and advised on menstruation and no longer risk dropping out of school.

animator presenting a reusable sanitary napkin

Before, when I was menstruating, I used to use strips of cloth as sanitary protection," says Aline, a pupil in the CM2 class at the Adjarra public primary school. But often my khaki school uniform would get stained and I would have to go home and miss that day's classes. My classmates make fun of girls when their school uniforms are stained. So I was afraid and ashamed of the arrival of my period. But since I started using washable and reusable cotton sanitary pads, I am no longer afraid in class. I use them easily and after class I go home and wash them.

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