Rising prices of menstrual products keep African girls out of school

The phenomenon of menstrual poverty is escalating due to the inflation crisis. In some areas of Africa, this means girls are at risk of infection by using rags, leaves, or cow dung, or even offering sex in exchange for tampons.

Since being ridiculed for bloodstains on her military uniform, Ghanaian student Juliette Opoko misses school for about a week each month. Her parents, who own a small farm, can no longer afford to buy sanitary towels.

The cost of sanitary towels has more than doubled to 12 Ghanaian cedi (€1.41), compared to 5 Ghanaian cedi last year. In the West African country, the inflation rate is currently around 32 percent. Poor families, such as the Opoko family, were forced to focus on buying food rather than hygiene products.

65 per cent of Kenyan women and girls can’t buy sanitary pads

“I miss school because I smeared my oil once and the boys harassed me. It affected my confidence,” says Opoko, 15, over the phone from Ashanti district in southern Ghana. “The sanitary pads are expensive,” says Opoko, who wants to become a nurse. The price…Sometimes I use toilet paper, baby diapers, or wipes during my period.”

Global inflation has driven up the cost of sanitary towels in many African countries. Health experts and charities say this is causing more girls to drop out of school, or to resort to unhealthy alternatives that can cause infections and sterility.

price explosion

The price of a pack of sanitary napkins increased by 117 percent in Zimbabwe in April and 50 percent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo compared to January. This was the conclusion of ActionAid International, which works for the rights of women and girls.

Charities say this could have devastating consequences for millions of African girls. It can affect their education, health and dignity, push them to have sex with older men – and ultimately exacerbate gender inequality.

school in Kenya. // (c) Getty

“With prices continuing to rise, our main concern is for women to forgo spending on health, such as medicine and sanitation, to prioritize food and other things to support their families,” said Sogania Kimbro of Catholic Relief Services. “This could have a significant impact on the girls who go to school and the women who earn their living,” said Kimbro, deputy director of program quality in East Africa. She adds that families are also skipping meals and selling livestock to adjust to higher longevity.

Education and health

Period poverty – often defined as a lack of access to menstrual products, toilets, and information about menstrual hygiene – is common in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Because of stigma, girls often miss school and sometimes drop out of school altogether.

It is estimated that one in ten girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their menstrual period, which can amount to 20 percent of the school year.

In Kenya, a survey sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that 65 percent of women and girls could not afford to buy sanitary pads. Only 32 percent of rural schools have a good place, such as restrooms, where girls can change sanitary towels.

The United Nations estimates that one in ten girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their period, which can be up to 20 percent of the school year. Even as these girls complete their education, activists say, they are more likely to fall behind boys their age, exacerbating existing inequalities in educational attainment.

Dangerous alternatives

Health experts say that when girls use makeshift substitutes, such as paper, old rags, papers and even dried cow dung, they run the risk of developing reproductive and urinary tract infections.

“Girls can get a bacterial infection from using rags,” said Anita Asamoah, an independent public health advocate. “If they don’t get proper care soon, this infection will later lead to pelvic inflammatory disease or infertility.”

10 percent of 15-year-old girls surveyed for the study had sex with men to get their period products

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries, which makes it difficult to get pregnant and increases the risk of an ectopic pregnancy in the fallopian tubes.

sex vs tampons

To raise money for sanitary towels, some girls have sex with older men, perpetuating the cycle of dependence and exploitation. Research by the Kenya Medical Research Institute found that 10 percent of 15-year-old girls surveyed had sex with men to get their period products.

“The men tempted them with sexual intercourse in exchange for sanitary towels,” said Adwa Nyanting Yeni, who works with the United Nations Population Fund in Ghana on adolescent sexual health.

In addition, it can lead to unwanted pregnancy and early motherhood. “Many girls are victims of teenage and unplanned pregnancies.”

menstrual cups

Activists have urged African countries to eliminate taxes on menstrual products or make them more affordable. Only a few countries, such as Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa, have already done so. Ghana imposes a 20 percent import tax and an additional 12.5 percent value-added tax on sanitary towels. Ghanaian tax authorities classify it as a luxury item.

In addition, activists say more countries should provide free sanitary pads to schoolgirls, similar to Kenya, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. They also believe that cheaper, reusable products such as pants with washable liners and menstrual cups should be promoted.

Kofi Kerimating Nyanting is Country Director in Ghana for CanYou? , which distributes silicone menstrual cups to marginalized girls around the world. “We need to find effective and sustainable ways to tackle menstrual poverty,” he says. “One successful strategy is to put reusable products like the menstrual cup on the agendas of policy makers,” he says. He adds that the cups last up to 10 years.

This article originally appeared on the IPS partner Thomson Reuters Foundation

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