Breaking barriers and challenging social norms: Menstrual health and education in Tanzania

Education: The chance to gain an understanding of the world; the opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge on which to build a career; a fundamental human right, taken for granted by those who enjoy its benefits.

It is not news to anyone that education is one of the most fundamental areas of inequality worldwide. In many countries, factors such as where you were born, your financial situation, and gender determine the level of education you receive. Today, on the International Day of the Girl, we discuss the social barriers that prevent girls from receiving an education in developing countries, looking at how local people are breaking boundaries and challenging social norms in an attempt to change this.

In the UK today, female students outnumber male students at the majority of universities. Yet in some countries, girls struggle to receive even the most basic levels of education, simply because they are girls. According to UNICEF, an estimated 31 million girls of primary school age and 32 million girls of lower secondary school age were out of school in 2013.

what-happens-imageA 1% increase in the number of women who have completed secondary education can push per capita income growth by 0.3% (image: CNN)

This is counterproductive in a number of respects. Educating girls is not only crucial on a personal level (studies have shown that every year of schooling increases a girl’s individual earning power by 10-20%, but it has also been proven to contribute to the achievement of other broader development objectives, including the elimination of poverty and disease. One of the major issues preventing this from happening – and also one of the most taboo subjects in the developing world – is menstruation and sexual health.

For young women and girls in parts of rural Africa, something as normal and natural as getting their period can bring their education to a standstill. What we consider a monthly annoyance becomes a physical impossibility, with little or no clean water and few toilet facilities or places to dispose of sanitary items in schools. In many rural areas, getting hold of sanitary items in the first place is extremely difficult and expensive.

wb-photoIn Sub-Saharan Africa, many girls drop out of school after having their first period (image: The World Bank)

According to research performed by non-governmental organisation Tanzania Aspiration Initiatives (TAI) 89% of girls say that menstruation contributes to their poor performance in school. Meanwhile, as many as 28% of girls miss 4-5 days of school every month because of the inability to manage their menstruation, prompting many to drop out of school all together. That is a quarter of their education gone because of biological circumstances beyond their control. As a result, these young girls are more likely to drop out of school altogether, leaving them more vulnerable to child marriage, teenage pregnancy and crime.

To combat this, TAI has launched the Jali Project. Jali means ‘care’ in Swahili, and the project is dedicated to recognising the issues facing girls that prevent them from achieving a high level of learning, empowering them to pursue the education they deserve. TAI representatives run teaching sessions in local schools and orphanages about general hygiene, reproductive health, puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, contraception, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and the importance of healthy relationships. They have also raised money through crowdfunding to buy sanitary items for girls, mainly in rural areas, who cannot afford or do not have access to such items.

tai-jaliTAI run educational events in schools and orphanages in Tanzania (image: TAI)

Such an issue can be extremely difficult to address in communities where social norms are entrenched and gender-biased historical and cultural factors continue to underpin gender stereotypes. This can make it challenging not only to raise such taboo social issues, but to address the importance of women’s education in the first place. Some communities fail to recognise the importance of education, particularly for girls, in societies where boys are considered to be the breadwinners and are therefore often given preferred access to education.

This reinforces the vicious cycle of girls’ poor performance in school, high dropout rates and women’s illiteracy – not only in Tanzania but elsewhere in Africa and worldwide. What TAI is doing, therefore, is not only empowering individual girls and women, but attempting to challenge the entire social fabric in Tanzania and beyond.


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