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Do 7 million SA girls miss school every month due to lack of sanitary pads?

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When protesters interrupted health minister Aaron Motsoaledi at the International AIDS conference recently they did so partly in the name of “7 million girls” who miss school each month because they don’t have access to or money for sanitary products.

Activist Ntombi-Zodwa Maphosa told conference goers this means girls “miss out on 25% of learning during the school year”.

The 7 million claim has been doing the rounds since 2014 when News24 interviewed two cyclists raising funds for Subz, an NGO providing reusable sanitary towels and menstruation education.

Girls need all the support possible to stay in school, but are we presented with the accurate statistics needed to understand and solve this problem?

Where is the figure from?

Africa Check spoke to the founder of Subz, Sue Barnes. She said they took the figure from the 2011 census which found that there were 9 million girls in South Africa between 10 and 19 and that 7 million of them fell in the lower LSM (living standards measure) brackets.

Off the bat this figure is incorrect: South Africa’s 2011 census counted 4,755,516 girls of all races between 10 and 19, Kevin Parry from Statistics South Africa’s population census division told Africa Check. The statistics agency’s population estimate for 2015 put the number at 5,120,001.

How many girls could be affected? 

Sue Barnes, who designed a reusable pack of sanitary pads and panties, holds up one of the Subz panties during an educational talk about menstruation at the Ekuthuleni Primary school in Durban in March 2015. Photo: AFP/STEFAN HEUNIS
Sue Barnes, who designed a reusable pack of sanitary pads and panties, holds up one of the Subz panties during an educational talk about menstruation at the Ekuthuleni Primary school in Durban in March 2015.

According to Statistics South Africa’s 2016 general household survey, there were an estimated 6,888,910 girls enrolled in school from grade R to grade 12.

The exact age that girls begin menstruating varies, with health minister Aaron Motsoaledi claiming in 2013 that girls in South Africa were starting as young as 9.

However, physician Dr Simone Shelly told Africa Check that it “would be a very, very small percentage in my experience – on average 11 to 16 is when girls start, mostly 13”. Shelly has public health experience in Pietermaritzburg and the Cape flats and currently works at a woman’s wellness centre in Cape Town.

If we exclude girls under the age of 9, there were almost 2.6 million girls aged 9 to 20 who were attending school but did not pay school fees. Reasons for not paying school included attending no-fee schools, receiving a fee exemption and not being able to afford fees. While this is an imperfect measure, this is the group that would potentially be unable to afford to buy sanitary pads while menstruating.

While this is still a large number of girls, it negates the claim of 7 million girls missing school.

Majority of pupils absent for only 1 day in 2014

How many girls are missing school when they have their period?

Even overall absentee numbers are hard to track, says Van Wyk, as the department of basic education only started recording these numbers in 2015, and the final figures have not yet been signed off on. “It’s information we just don’t have,” he says.

The Western Cape education department has been recording figures for the last four years, as reported by schools. Millicent Merton from the department’s communication directorate provided statistics for the first term of 2016 when fairly equal numbers of boys and girls were absent in the Western Cape - 541,247 days for girls versus 522,422 days for boys, or an average of about one day per pupil.

But when looked at as a percentage, boys were absent more often than girls, as there were more girls (534,844) enrolled than boys (514,181). These statistics have remained fairly consistent over the years that they have been recorded, Merton told Africa Check.

“Our absentee stats only cover absenteeism, not the reason for it,” she added.

The department of basic education’s 2014 report, drawn from data collected by Stats SA in their General Household Survey, found that the overall percentage of absent pupils was 7%, a statistic which hadn’t changed from 2013 but was down very slightly from 8% in 2009. The majority of pupils were only absent for 1 day in the school year.

The Western Cape had the highest absentee rate, at 10%. Reasons for absenteeism included writing exams, not wanting to go to school, illness or injury, bad weather, the cost or availability of transport, safety issues at school and needing to take care of someone else in the household. Menstruation was not included as an option, though.

The cost of menstruation

Sandra Millar of Dignity Dreams, an NGO that also supplies sanitary pads and offers menstrual education, said they “work on the assumption that if the child’s family can’t afford school fees, they can’t afford pads; some of them don’t even have panties.”

But that does not automatically mean these girls miss school when they have their period. “We are amazed at how few of them stay at home; the girls will make a plan,” she said.

The cost of pads will vary greatly from city to city, and depend on what shops girls have access to, but the cheapest pads available on at the time of this research was R7.95 for 8, with the majority around R20 per pack, forcing girls to find alternatives such as rags, socks or paper, Millar said.

While the embarrassment and loss of dignity cannot be quantified, it seems the medical risks of using these alternatives are small, though. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a patient with a condition linked to people using a pad for too long or using a towel or newspapers,” Shelly reported.

“You could get thrush or bacterial vaginosis, linked to poor local hygiene,” she said. “It could be that girls are coming in with a discharge, and getting treated for a sexually transmitted illness, but the treatment for STIs will cover infections related to local hygiene. It’s never come up as an issue in my years of practice.”

Conclusion: No data supports claim that 7 million girls miss school

In 2016, there were approximately 2.6 million girls aged 9 to 20 who were attending school but did not pay school fees in South Africa. It is potentially this group of girls who would be unable to buy sanitary pads while menstruating.

Though girls may suffer the indignity of being forced to use alternatives, available absenteeism data does not show that they stay home in numbers.

The perception of girls missing school because of a lack of access to sanitary pads is widespread. A 2011 study by Poverty Action Lab in Nepal found that the number of girls missing school because of their period was not as high as previously thought - although 47% of girls reported missing school because of their period, attendance data from the schools showed they only missed half a day per year on average.

Similar research in South Africa could provide us with more answers, says Dr Adam Cooper of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). “While it's irresponsible to make wildly exaggerated claims that aren't based on any evidence, this does not mean that this isn't a serious issue that requires further research.”

Millar added that by focusing on this incorrect claim, it draws the public's attention away from the real need of the girls who are not being kept out of school by this problem, but rather suffering through it.

Beyond proper statistics about how girls are affected, systemic measures are needed to ensure a constant supply of sanitary pads. In 2011, President Jacob Zuma promised that the government would provide sanitary pads to indigent girls and women, a promise which was reiterated on many occasions, but still has not been delivered on.

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