Investing in education is viewed as a strong mechanism for reducing poverty by many countries. Research shows how those with more years of schooling tend to earn a higher income and provide social benefits in the form of economic growth. Although inequality of education is decreasing, in many developing countries there still exists a gender gap whereby females tend to be less educated than their male peers.
Rwanda is one of a few African countries to reach gender equity in primary education and is ranked in the top 5 for gender equity worldwide. However, despite this positive strive, Rwandan female students continue to fall behind in educational achievement and access, particularly at the secondary and tertiary levels. Why is this the case? Well, one important determinant is period poverty. Period poverty refers to the lack of access to menstrual products, hygienic spaces and the presence of stigma or shame associated with menstruation. Period poverty has a significant effect on girls’ education: in Africa one in ten girls are reported to miss school whilst on their period.
In Rwanda girls may miss as many as fifty days of school or work each year due to their period. Consequently, girls are falling behind, despite the country’s attempts to improve gender equality. It is clearly not enough to strive for equality, we need gender equity, which can only be achieved by providing girls with the resources they need, allowing them to grasp the opportunities available to them.
By not providing affordable sanitary products, hygienic spaces, and period education, girls are facing discrimination that will result in a society where period- poverty is everlasting, despite the government’s attempts to eliminate gender discrimination and establish gender equality.
In 2020 the Rwandan government removed the VAT tax on sanitary products, which was a significant step forward, however a pack of sanitary pads still costs the equivalent of a day’s wage for many women on low incomes. Removing the VAT simply perpetuates the inequality as women who cannot afford sanitary products will continue to miss school, receive a lower standard of education, and thus are less likely to find a high-income job. To get closer to gender equity in education and tackle period poverty, the following changes must be implemented.
Building period safe spaces that offer private and hygienic spaces for girls to visit whilst at school can help eradicate period poverty. In these spaces, showers, sanitary products, spare clothes and resting areas should be offered. Period safe spaces mean young girls would no longer have to stay at home when menstruating and would have a place of respite without fear of embarrassment at school.
Another vital step to improve period poverty is menstrual education. Menstrual taboos are so deeply rooted in Rwandan culture that they can often restrict girls’ social and economic mobility and access to menstrual health and hygiene information. If a girl is taught to be ashamed of her period, often she cannot learn how to be safe and hygienic with her self-care. Additionally, a lack of sex education in Rwandan schools means young girls are not aware of what periods really are, the reasons behind them, and what they can or cannot do whilst on them, which results in shame and unsafe procedures. Therefore it is imperative that girls are given a scientifically accurate education on periods, pregnancy, and female anatomy.
Finally, one of the most important steps needed is to make sanitary products cheaper and more readily available to those on low incomes. Universal access to sanitary products both financially and practically is extremely important for women and can be provided by charities and governments. For example, in Kenya, the government announced free sanitary products for females in 2017. Additionally, reusable sanctuary products like menstrual cups could be a solution, however this is only possible if girls have access to safe and hygienic resources to prevent infection.
Why should the government implement these changes to reduce period poverty? Well, investing in girls’ education is one of the best methods to eradicate poverty. Better educated women tend to be healthier, participate in the labour force more, have a higher income, and are able to provide their children with a greater standard of living and quality of life. In fact, if all women had a secondary education, child deaths would be cut in half, saving 3 million lives. Therefore, governments have a strong incentive to eradicate period poverty.
If you would like to learn more about period poverty in Rwanda, the St Andrews branch of Children of Rwanda is holding a collaborative event with Sexpression and the University’s Environmental Subcommittee. At this event we will learn how to make reusable pads, learn about sustainable period products and hear testimonials about the invaluable work that Children of Rwanda and Sexpression are doing to combat period poverty. The event will take place on November 4th 6-8pm.