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Still no evidence for ghost stat about schoolchildren’s access to menstrual products in South Africa

Menstrual products brand StayFree makes two big claims in its ads on social media, but there’s very little research to back them up.

This article is more than 11 months old

  • There is no hard data to back up common claims about lack of access to menstrual products in South Africa, which are repeated here by the StayFree brand.  

  • The United Nations’ Children’s Fund has previously been credited with the claim that “30% of South African girls miss school because of menstruation”, but says it never said such a thing.

  • Researchers say that “period poverty” is multi-faceted and absenteeism is not the only issue related to lack of access to menstrual products, but that hygiene management and treatment of menstrual disorders should also be considered.

In ads shared on its official social media pages in 2023, menstrual products brand StayFree makes two claims about the number of South African schoolchildren who lack access to menstrual products and miss school as a consequence. 

These well-worn claims have also been made by other social media users and brands. However, none of them cite a source.

The inability to afford menstrual products is known as period poverty. It is thought to affect many people around the world, but particularly those who are already disadvantaged in some way. This includes people experiencing homelessness, and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Africa Check has investigated similar claims in the past, and found little evidence to support them. 

Has this situation changed?

Note: Africa Check has contacted Johnson & Johnson, the company that produces StayFree, to establish the source of their claims. We will update this report when we receive a response.

Research on period poverty and menstrual hygiene

Africa Check spoke to Chloe van Biljon, an economics lecturer at Tsiba Business School in Cape Town, and Dr Laura Rossouw, a senior research fellow in economics at Wits University in Johannesburg. Both have conducted research on period poverty and menstrual hygiene management (MHM). They stressed that the issue was more complex than statistics like these might suggest.

“Just because there is an absence of measurable statistics doesn't mean that the effects don't exist. This is an area of research where there is a serious lack of funding,” Rossouw said.

Research is constrained by both funding and other trade-offs. For example, Van Biljon explained that because of the stigma surrounding periods, people who participated in large surveys were less likely to give honest answers. This meant that the data might not be reliable. 

Smaller qualitative surveys may provide more accurate answers because researchers can speak directly to participants and ensure that they feel comfortable discussing the topic. However, the size of these surveys limits how widely they apply. “Qualitative information is useful, but we don’t really use that for countrywide conclusions,” said Van Biljon.

Claim

30% of South African girls miss school during their periods.

Verdict

Unproven

Africa Check investigated this very claim in 2021 and found no evidence that “three out of 10 girls in South Africa miss school during their period each month”. 

Although the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) was cited as the source of the statistic, the organisation told us that it had not published anything of the kind.

Has any data on the topic been published since?

No recent data to support claim

Both Rossouw and Van Biljon were unaware of any studies that had published this or any other estimate. “There’s no major survey that I know of that asks this of schoolgirls. And if there was a self-reported question like this, given the stigma around periods, you wouldn’t really expect it to be that accurate,” Van Biljon told Africa Check. 

A 2021 study in the journal Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters surveyed women and girls in three African countries. It found that in Burkina Faso 17% of those who had attended school in the past year had missed school because of menstruation, and this figure was 15% in Niger, and 23% in Nigeria. In Uganda, a 2018 survey found that 19.7% of schoolgirls “reported missing at least one day of school, during their most recent period”.

Specifically South African studies include one conducted in 2020 by researchers at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape province. It found that 22.4% of those surveyed had missed school because of menstruation. The sample consisted of 1,035 female students aged between 13 and 24, with an average age of 17.2 years. The study does not support a figure as high as 30% and only applies to one province. 

Younger students may be more likely to miss school because of menstruation. A study published in 2019 by researchers at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape supports this (the paper was written as part of Van Biljon’s master’s degree, and she was one of the authors). It looked at patterns of absenteeism in South Africa’s Limpopo province, and found that menstruation may cause school absenteeism in younger girls around the onset of menstruation, but may not be a significant barrier for older girls. 

This may be because “older girls learn coping mechanisms that enable them to attend school”, the researchers said. They noted that while anywhere from 20% (Uganda) to 60% (India) of girls surveyed in several countries had missed school during their period, menstruation was found to account for only a small percentage of overall school absences. But the study did not estimate how many South African girls missed school during their period.

Without evidence to support a figure of 30%, we rate this claim unproven, meaning more research is needed. 

Other effects on schooling

Rossouw told Africa Check that menstrual hygiene management can have an impact on schooling beyond simply increasing absenteeism. She pointed out “presenteeism”, where “girls are attending school but having severe period pains and discomfort”. 

And according to Van Biljon, “even if girls are still going to school… it’s the choice they have that matters.” Girls should have a way to manage menstruation in an easy and dignified way, she said.

Claim

3.7 million schoolgirls in South Africa can't afford sanitary pads.

Verdict

Unproven

This claim has also been made widely in the past, but again we could not find a source for it.

A 2019 article attributes the claim to the activist campaign Menstrual Hygiene Day, and links to a page on its website. While the stat can’t be found there, another page on the website attributes the claim to the World Economic Forum (WEF), a non-profit organisation set up to promote private-public economic partnerships. 

But we could find no evidence that this organisation has ever published this statistic. (Note: Africa Check has contacted the WEF to ask if it is the source of this estimate and will update this report if we receive a response.)

We investigated a similar claim in 2016. At the time, we found no data to suggest that seven million girls were missing school every month because they didn’t have sanitary pads. Based on the 2016 general household survey (GHS) by Statistics South Africa, the country’s data agency, we found that 2.6 million girls aged nine to 20 who were in school but not paying school fees were most at risk of not being able to afford pads.

According to the 2021 GHS data, there were around 3.2 million girls aged nine to 20 who were attending school without paying fees in 2021. This is an increase from the number we calculated in 2016, but still half a million short of the figure shared by Stayfree.

But this estimate does not tell us how many children were actually unable to afford pads and does not account for children who attended fee-paying schools, perhaps supported by bursaries or scholarships, but could not always afford menstrual products. There might also be many children who attended a no-fee school but who could afford menstrual products.

Again, without any evidence to support a figure of 3.7 million, we rate this claim as unproven. 

Beyond sanitary products 

“Period poverty is multifaceted, and goes beyond a lack of access to menstrual products,” Rossouw told Africa Check. “It includes a lack of education about menstruation, poor diagnosis and treatment of menstrual disorders, and not having access to clean and private water, sanitation and hygiene spaces.” 

According to Van Biljon, pain management is another disruptive factor that goes beyond access to sanitary products. She suggested that pain killers could also be exempted from value added tax, as some menstrual products were in 2019.

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