Girls’ exclusion: Tackling a taboo issue in Nepal
Om Prasad Gautam
Going to school can be a worrying experience for many children. They may face physical barriers or encounter attitudes or practices that make them feel unwelcome in school. Girls in particular face barriers to their inclusion in education. Many of these issues – such as early marriage or sexual abuse at school – are receiving increased attention. One such issue, however, remains taboo – menstruation and its effect on girls’ education. This article summarises some of the findings of a study carried out by WaterAid in Nepal.
Nepal is a signatory to the Delhi Declaration 2008: “Sanitation for Dignity and Health”, which states that “…the special needs of women [should be] integrated in planning, implementation, monitoring and measurement of [sanitation] programme outcomes”. Many water and sanitation programmes exist in Nepal, and they increasingly acknowledge women’s and men’s specific needs. Yet menstruation issues are still ignored.
WaterAid consulted 204 girls aged 12-20 years in four schools (rural and urban). This involved questionnaires, group discussions and interviews. There were four themes: knowledge and beliefs; experiences during menstruation; seclusion, exclusion and absenteeism; and hygiene practices.
Girls’ knowledge: most girls knew about menstruation before they experienced it, although most felt unprepared. Their knowledge was mainly from mothers and sisters, and focused on rituals and restrictions, e.g. beliefs that menstruating girls should keep away from food and men.
Restrictions: about 89% of girls faced some form of restriction or exclusion each month, such as abstaining from religious activities. About half said they had been absent from school at least once due to menstruation. Many girls, felt unable to perform well at school due to the pain they experienced. Other girls feared they would not be permitted to use the toilet during exams.
“When we come for the exams the excruciating pain can blank us out.”
Self-consciousness: stress and worry about menstruation made girls reluctant to move around the classroom or school grounds.
Lack of privacy: this was the main reason for school absence during menstruation – mainly due to lack of washing water, or broken toilet doors. Only 42% of girls felt there was adequate privacy in school toilets. This problem also affects female teachers.
“In our school there is no water facility in the toilet – it is so difficult… sometimes I have to miss school.”
A taboo topic: schools tended to ignore the issue of menstruation. Teachers avoided teaching about it, thus perpetuating the taboos and leaving girls feeling isolated. Very few girls would talk to their teachers about their worries.
- Improved education for mothers who are a main source of information about menstruation, but who often convey myths not facts. Mothers must be able to inform their daughters and support them to manage menstruation.
- Training for teachers on handling reproductive health lessons and pastoral care with confidence and sensitivity; and monitoring to ensure they are not avoiding certain topics.
- Improved water and sanitation facilities to ensure girls have privacy and access to water for washing. This need not involve high costs. Schools and communities can adopt a problemsolving approach, so that girls can express their concerns without fear or embarrassment, and suggest low-cost solutions.
- Integration of the issue of menstruation into all water and sanitation projects by policy-makers and project planners.
- More qualitative research and reporting on the effects of menstruation on girls’ attendance, participation and achievement in education.
Full report “Is Menstrual Hygiene and Management an Issue for Adolescent School Girls? A comparative study of four schools in different settings of Nepal” available from: www.wateraid.org/nepal, or on CD from EENET.
Om Prasad Gautam,
Social Development Adviser
PO Box 20214,
Tel: +977 1 5552764 / 5552765
Fax: 977 1 5547420