As we mark Menstrual Hygiene Day on 28 May 2021, we wish to highlight the need for continued investment in removing the barriers that keep marginalised children from accessing quality education. 

 “I was afraid that the other students, and especially the boys, would mock me when they saw the blood on my chair and on my skirt … I didn’t feel comfortable being in class.”

 Just over two decades ago in rural Cambodia, when Chhorn Chanpheak got her first period, she had to skip out on school. Not only was there no toilet at her school but her school was a three-hour walk from home and she was afraid to take the risk over what her peers would say. “I was afraid that the other students, especially the boys, would mock me when they saw the blood on my chair and on my skirt,” she explains.

 While her student days may be well behind her, Chanpheak still witnesses the same embarrassment and social stigma that menstruation can illicit among students. As a teacher for children with disabilities in Phnom Penh, she sadly notes that the arrival of menstruation often spells the end of school for up to half of her female students.

 Chanpheak teaches 18 students of whom 44% are girls aged 15-25 years old. While her school does have a toilet, it’s shared between girls and boys. Having a separate toilet at school can be a decisive factor in whether a girl continues education after she hits puberty as access to a water point and a place to dispose of menstrual products are essential. Without this, Global Partnership for Education, reports that girls may miss up to five days of school every month or drop out of school completely. For girls with disabilities, the risk of dropping out of school stands at 50/50 according to Chanpheak.

 While little quantitative research is available to demonstrate the impact of menses of school attendance or enrollment for girls with disabilities in Cambodia, teacher Chea Seiha has also experienced a high dropout rate among her female students after they hit puberty. When her school in Siem Reap reopened in October 2020 after school closures due to Covid-19, Seiha reported that three out of a mixed class of ten, aged 13-15 years old, did not return because they had started their periods. 

While a booklet that teaches children how to stay safe and hygienic during puberty has been in circulation in public schools for almost a decade, it appears not to be reaching children with disabilities. While education in school on the topic would be valuable, Seiha and Chanpheak think education from parents should come first.

 “The parents don’t encourage their daughters to go to school because they know that they cannot manage themselves,” explains Seiha. 

Over her ten-year teaching span, Chanpheak has noticed that her students have the same fears she had as a girl – fear of being mocked by the boys. She’s also noticed their mood fluctuates and affects their learning in class and a lack of hygiene knowledge prevents some students from taking care of their hygiene needs independently. All of this and more leads to the girls’ parents keeping them out of school.

 She suggests a number of solutions which could be implemented to tackle the issue: encouraging parents to teach their children about puberty; separate toilets for girls in schools; menstrual hygiene education in schools tailored to children with intellectual disabilities; training for teachers on how to support girls with disabilities during puberty; and a student self-help group to encourage peer-to-peer sharing. 

  Thanks to committed teachers like Chanpheak and Seiha, Action Education, in partnership with Rabbit School Organisation, a local nonprofit specialising in education, is identifying the needs of children with disabilities across Cambodia to better understand how to build inclusive education solutions that leave no child behind. 

In 2020, under the Cambodian Consortium for Out of School Children, in partnership with Educate A Child (EAC), a global programme of the Education Above All Foundation, we supported the educational needs of 489 children with intellectual disabilities, of whom almost one-third were girls. 

Christine Redmond

Copyright: Christine Redmond