Keeping girls in school and out of marriage. Period.

Saturday, 27 May 2017 19:48 GMT

Uttara Saud, 14, sits inside a Chaupadi shed in the hills of Legudsen village in Achham District in western Nepal February 16, 2014. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

What if your first period meant your parents thought you were ready for marriage?

Girls can start their periods as early as 10 or 11 years old. But what if your first period meant your parents thought you were ready for marriage? Or you were forced to miss school because of it? 

This is the devastating reality for girls like Sarika. Sarika is from Saptari district in Nepal where 37% of girls are married before the age of 18 putting their health, safety and education in jeopardy. Soon after her first period, Sarika’s parents decided she was “grown up” enough to be married. Research from Human Rights Watch suggests that Sarika’s story is one of many in Nepal. 

This link between a girls’ first period or ‘menarche’ and child marriage doesn’t just happen in Nepal. Around the world, it can mean the end of a girls’ education and the beginning of a lifetime of domestic work, pregnancy and in some cases, violence. On Menstrual Hygiene Management Day (28th May) it’s never been more important to tackle the taboo around menstruation and advocate for services and education to help girls stay in school and out of marriage after their periods begin. 

Menstruation can affect girls’ ability or desire to attend school 

Going to school while on their period is difficult for many girls. Without access to or money for sanitary products they might be forced to use rags or other materials instead. Without proper toilet facilities, running water or a place to wash their hands girls also struggle to manage their periods at school. Girls may fear accidents at school and without proper facilities they often feel too embarrassed to go to school, preferring to wait until their period is over. 

That is if they even have a choice. In many places, menstruation is a taboo subject. Girls may not be allowed to leave the house during their period because they are branded ‘dirty.’ In Nepal, a practice called Chhaupadi banishes girls to cattle sheds until their period is over. 

Whether down to embarrassment, poor facilities or taboo, national studies from Brazil, India, Uganda and Ghana suggest at least 30% and up to 95% of girls report missing school due to their period. 

The impact of this absenteeism on girls’ ability to achieve at school is critical. They almost inevitably fall behind and this can contribute to parents questioning the value of girls’ education. We know that when girls drop out of school they are overwhelmingly more vulnerable to child marriage. This is because some parents view marriage as the only option for their daughters or they see it as a way of reducing household costs. When a girl gets married the ‘cost’ of looking after her passes to her husband and his family. 

Research has shown that when girls have access to appropriate sanitary products and facilities, and they understand what is happening to their bodies, they are more likely to stay in school and out of marriage. 

But what if menstruation is seen as a sign girl are ‘ready for marriage’? 

Many girls do not get the choice to stay in school after their periods start. In parts of the world a girls’ first period is interpreted as a sign she is a woman – ready for marriage and motherhood. In reality, we know that girls are neither physically nor emotionally ready for marriage or pregnancy until adulthood. In fact, complications during pregnancy and child birth are the leading cause of death in adolescent girls globally. 

23% of girls in India drop out of school completely after they start menstruating 

Despite this, some parents decide to take their daughters out of school to be married after their periods start. Schools can become a hostile environment for girls entering puberty: they may face sexual harassment on their way to or from school or from their peers or teachers. Parents who fear that school is unsafe for their unmarried daughters may view marriage as an acceptable solution to protect her and the family’s honour. 

Teaching girls about their periods can keep them in school and out of child marriage 

A girl’s first period is actually a crucial time for her to stay in school. As well as her education, school is often the only place where she can learn about going through puberty and how to manage it. These sexual health classes at school are also a good place to start a conversation about child marriage and the alternatives to it. 

In 2014, Wateraid found that 70% of Indian school girls had no idea what was happening to them when they had their first period. They had dropped out of school before receiving any sexual and reproductive health education. 

In Uganda, Girls Not Brides member, Health Promotion and Rights Watch, uses menstrual hygiene education as an entry point for educating girls about the impact of child marriage. Their founder, Nankunda Hope, talks to adolescent girls about child marriage when they come to collect sanitary towels. 

A girls’ first period is a pivotal moment in her life for many reasons. It shouldn’t be the end of her education and it shouldn’t be the beginning of her marriage. Schools need the appropriate facilities and girls need sanitary products so that they can attend school. Families and girls need to understand that menstruation is not a taboo or a signal for marriage. With this knowledge, a girls’ first period can be a normal part of growing up not a danger to her wellbeing and development.

Jenna Norman is communications assistant at Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage