Photo credit : Inès Provoost/AEA

Adolescence remains a particularly difficult time for millions of girls. Once they start menstruating, the door to childhood and innocence closes. How can they continue to go to school with blood loss, without access to a toilet and without a sanitary napkin? This seems inconceivable in the 21st century, yet it is the daily life of millions of young girls.  It is a daily life that has consequences, as it leads to absenteeism and early school leaving.  

A toilet in a school seems harmless. But in nearly 6 out of 10 schools in the world, it remains a luxury. And yet it is an essential need, indispensable to every child. Especially for girls, for whom the onset of menstruation in adolescence, often a taboo subject, represents a major obstacle to continuing their schooling. The lack of access to sanitary towels, toilets or washbasins, or even to all three at the same time, condemns them to be absent from school for 5 to 7 days a month. And this repeated absenteeism leads to early school leaving. 

Preventing the risks of dropping out

One of Action Education’s first missions in the schools where it intervenes is to build separate toilets for girls and boys. This is the case in about 170 schools in Benin where Action Education is working within the framework of “Act”. This program aims at facilitating the schooling of nearly 17,000 girls. “Action Education has built a lot of infrastructure in my school, including latrines and a hand washing facility. Before we had no latrines at all in our school. My classmates and I used to defecate in the open, which was not good for our health. The handwashing station was also welcome in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” explains Happy Gbakpo, a third-grade student at the Ecole Primaire Publique Azizakouè in the commune of Ouidah.

Lifting taboos

“Menstruation is a normal process in the lives of our daughters, sisters and mothers. It is not acceptable for them to be absent for five days a month. There is no need to isolate them during their periods as prescribed by certain rites and customs. They can go about their daily business normally if they are able to do so. It is just necessary to sensitise them and teach them to take care of themselves and their studies. I am very grateful to the teachers for their involvement in this mission”, explains Raymond Datin, president of the Gonfandji school parents’ association. Action Education entrusts groups of teachers and mothers with the task of looking after the girls, discussing with them the arrival of their periods and preparing them for this new stage of life. “As a teacher, I am involved in helping girls manage their periods and this is very important to me. When I was a child, I had a very bad experience with them. The first time I had it, I was on holiday with my uncle in Ghana and he almost sent me back to Benin thinking I was pregnant. I was in a lot of pain and losing a lot of blood, and I missed a week of classes to avoid being spotted in class and becoming a laughing stock. One day, my SVT teacher pointed out to me that it was not normal to miss school because of this. Without her intervention, I could have dropped out of school,” explains Inès KATCHA, a second grade teacher at the public school of GOLO – DJIGBE. An intervention that also allows us to get to know young girls better, to lift many taboos and to strengthen their protection. “As part of the Act programme, I was responsible for taking a census of young girls who have their periods at school in order to ensure their attendance. Discussing with them had a positive effect, absences decreased drastically. But the training I received also allowed me to notice the strange attitude of a reserved, fearful and often late student. I had a long talk with her and I understood that she was living a drama: she was regularly abused by her stepfather since she was in the fourth grade. There are six of us teachers in the school and we had not seen anything of her suffering until then,” explains Ertosie Boko, a fourth grade teacher at Dagléta School.

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