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Empowering girls through education

Addressing menstrual health and hygiene issues reduces school dropouts, improves livelihoods

by Melissa Johnson and Jim McGill | Mission Crossroads

Cecilia Shawa teaches girls at Mphamba Primary School in Lundazi District, Zambia, about feminine hygiene and reproductive health.
(Photo by Melissa Johnson)

An African proverb says: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”

One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” because “education enables upward socioeconomic mobility and is a key to escaping poverty.”

Matthew 25 calls us to eradicate systems and structures that keep people and communities poor.  Just as there is overwhelming data that educating girls empowers a nation, there is also clear evidence that girls often leave school due to cultural and personal issues related to menstruation.

Growing awareness of this concern has prompted some ministry partners in Africa to make menstrual health and hygiene (MHH) a priority to help girls stay in school.

Cecilia Shawa, a feminine hygiene educator with the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) Synod of Zambia’s Health Department, interviewed girls and young women about how menstruation affects their lives. While she knew that menstrual health management in Zambia was a challenge, she was saddened by the story of one young girl, Loveness, who was surprised and scared by beginning her period at school. Because she was unprepared, her school uniform was soiled. Her classmates, including the boys, shamed her. Lacking a facility where she could clean herself, Loveness ran home. She was so embarrassed she went to live with her grandmother in Malawi. Loveness didn’t return for a year and a half, and she didn’t attend school during this time. When she did return, she was still so traumatized by her experience that she changed schools. Loveness’ story is not unique. In areas where water and facilities are lacking, the onset of menses increases girls’ vulnerability to dropping out of school.

Improving access to safe and healthy menstrual hygiene education, materials and facilities helps reduce poverty. A child whose mother can read is 50% more likely to survive past the age of 5. Each extra year of a mother’s schooling reduces the probability of an infant dying by 5% to10%. The risk of maternal death is 2.7 times higher among women with little or no education. Countless studies have shown that every year a girl stays in school, her income can increase by 15% to 25%. An educated woman will invest 90% of her income into her family and is more likely to send her children to school, continuing the legacy of education and helping break the cycle of poverty.

Cecilia and the CCAP Zambia Health Department are working to educate girls, women and men about MHH and reproductive health to help keep girls in school by reducing the stigma that surrounds menstruation. They also are sustainably producing washable, reusable feminine hygiene kits and making them available and affordable for women in communities across Zambia.

By addressing MHH in schools, mission partners are supporting girls’ education and confronting systems that keep people living in poverty.

Melissa Johnson serves as health education program facilitator with the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Synod of Zambia Health Department.

Jim McGill serves with the Evangelical Church in the Republic of Niger and the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan to ensure sustainability for clean water and sanitation at the community and user levels.

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