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Do 3 in 10 girls in South Africa miss school because they lack sanitary pads? Ghost stat widely cited

Many organisations and media houses have attempted to quantify the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products. But data on this remains limited.

  • Sources claimed the figure was from the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef). But the agency said they had not conducted any such studies or made this claim.

  • Unicef South Africa told us absenteeism during menstruation is due to a number of factors, of which lack of products is only one.

  • Girls need all the support possible to stay in school. Accurate data would help policy makers understand and solve this problem.

While discussing “period poverty” and its effect on schoolgirls, an article on the widely read South African website News24 offered an alarming statistic. 

“It is estimated that three out of 10 girls in South Africa miss school during their periods each month,” said the June 2021 article in Parent24, the website’s parenting section. 

Do this many schoolgirls miss school?

‘3 in 10’ figure attributed to Unicef, but no exact source found

Parent24 told us that the statistic was from an article by Impact South Africa, a website that focuses on corporate social investments.

Impact SA’s article in turn attributed the figure to the United Nations Children’s Fund, Unicef. The article was marked “partner content” for Always, a menstrual hygiene products brand of the US multinational Procter & Gamble (P&G). 

But Impact SA was unable to provide us with the Unicef source cited.

The statistic was also used on News24 in an advertorial written by Cassie Jaganyi, the P&G communications lead for sub-Saharan Africa. 

She also attributed the statistic to Unicef, and added that “girls can miss up to seven school days a month”. Jaganyi did not not respond to our request for a more specific source.

Previous similar claims also unproven

Africa Check has fact-checked similar claims. In 2016 we looked into a “widely cited” statistic that “one in 10 school-age girls in Africa misses school or drops out for reasons related to her period”. 

This particular statistic had been repeated by among others the World Bank, the World Economic Forum and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (which has since removed it).  It was attributed both to Unicef and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).

Both UN agencies conceded there wasn’t good data on absenteeism due to menstruation. An expert we spoke to also told us there was “very limited rigorous research on absenteeism as it is complicated to capture in an accurate way”.

Has the situation changed since 2016?

Unicef South Africa says absenteeism data difficult to come by

We asked Unicef South Africa chief of communications Toby Fricker if the agency had conducted such a study. He was unable to find one. 

As far as I know, there is no national statistic on school absenteeism due to lack of menstrual products,” Fricker said.

Lack of menstrual products is one of a number of issues that contribute to absenteeism – it is a combination of issues such as lack of sanitation, pain, lack of products and social stigmas, to name a few,” he said.  

“Hence, data of absenteeism due to lack of products is often difficult to come by as there is not a singular link between the two.” 

Lack of research on subject

In June 2018, the University of Stellenbosch’s Law Clinic said it had asked the national treasury to make feminine hygiene products exempt from value added tax (VAT).   

The law clinic said that based on its research, the high prices of these products was an “enormous problem”, especially for the poor. It said that “about 30%” of schoolgirls missed school when they were menstruating as they could not afford the products. 

 It added: “This means that a girl could effectively lose about 90 days of schooling a year as a direct result of issues relating to menstruation.”

But the law clinic did not give any other details about its research. It has not responded to our attempts to contact it, and we have not been able to find this research online.

In April 2019 the South African government scrapped VAT on sanitary pads.

Education department says girls miss school because of period pain, not lack of sanitary towels

Dululu Hlatshaneni is the acting director for social cohesion, community mobilisation and equity in education at the department of basic education.

She told Africa Check that the department currently “does not have a system that tracks information on girls who miss school due to menstruation”. 

“However, there are studies that have been taken by independent partners that suggest a minimum number of girls miss school due to menstrual pains rather than a lack of sanitary towels”. 

Hlatshaneni said the department was providing information on puberty and menstrual hygiene as part of its “comprehensive sexuality education curriculum”.

“Adolescent girls and young women are also supported with information on addressing health issues, including health hygiene management,” she said.

Conclusion: No data shows 3 in 10 school girls miss school due to menstruation

To highlight the problem of lack of access to menstrual hygiene products, a widely read publication claimed that three out of 10 girls in South Africa miss school during their periods every month.

The statistic led us to Unicef. But the UN agency said it had not made such a claim, and that data on this topic was hard to collect.   

We therefore rate this version of the regular claims about school absenteeism  as unproven.

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