No data shows 1 in 10 African girls miss school because of menstruation

A number of small studies have been conducted in African countries on the effect of menstruation on girls’ school attendance. But the situation across the continent remains unknown.

We know for sure that 7 million South African girls don’t miss school every month due to a lack of sanitary pads. Our recent fact-check showed that at most around 2.6 million girls could be affected.

What about the rest of the continent?

A “widely cited” statistic claims that “one in 10 school-age girls in Africa misses school or drops out for reasons related to her period”.

The World Bank has said this, as well as the World Economic Forum, News24, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa and The UK Guardian.

But the fact that a statistic is widely used does not mean there is research to back it up (see widely cited and debunked claims about child trafficking, traditional medicine use and asylum seekers in South Africa). Now, this claim can now be added to the list.

Source of the claim is unknown

Africa Check tried tracking down the source of this claim. It was tricky – and ultimately unsuccessful.

The statistic has been attributed to both the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In fact, a UNESCO report on puberty education and menstrual hygiene management attributes the statistic to UNICEF. But UNICEF is not sure why.

“From what we’ve seen this seems to be a case of UNICEF being misquoted, or misattributed,” UNICEF press officer Rita Ann Wallace told Africa Check.

“According to our statistics team, unfortunately data on menstrual hygiene management including for adolescent girls remains scarce.”

Where did UNESCO find the statistic then? The organisation’s communications and advocacy project officer for health and education, Cara Delmas, is stumped too.  

“Unfortunately, it seems that no one knows where this number comes from,” she told Africa Check.

“According to the advice I have received, there isn’t a lot of good data on this issue.”

‘Very limited rigorous research’

A worker creates low cost sanitary pads from locally-produced banana fibres in Ngoma, Rwanda, in March 2015. Photo: AFP/STÉPHANIE AGLIETTI
A worker creates low cost sanitary pads from locally-produced banana fibres in Ngoma, Rwanda, in March 2015. Photo: AFP/STÉPHANIE AGLIETTI

“There is very limited rigorous research on absenteeism as it is complicated to capture in an accurate way,” associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, Marni Sommer, told Africa Check.

Sommer conducted her doctoral research on girls’ experiences of menstruation, puberty and schooling in Tanzania. She told Africa Check that she has seen the 1 in 10 statistic cited as an estimate but that it wasn’t based on actual research.

There have been a number of small-scale studies conducted in African countries, which have found varying effects of menstruation on girls’ school attendance.

Just over 40% of 39 school girls surveyed in South Gondar, Ethiopia, in 2010 reported missing school due to menstruation in the last 30 days. Ninety percent of the girls said that they did not have a place to adequately maintain their hygiene while menstruating.

A 2008/09 study conducted in Ghana’s capital city Accra and the western, central, upper east and Ashanti region found that 95.2% of girls in rural villages and 20.2% of girls in peri-urban villages reported having missed school due to of menstruation.

A 2013 study found that 35% of surveyed girls in Niger and 21% of surveyed girls in Burkina Faso reported “sometimes” missing school during menstruation.

A tenth of 319 Sierra Leonean school girls surveyed in 2012 reported that they had missed school in the last three months due to menstruation. On average they reported missing 4.2 days per month. The most common reported reasons for missing school were “pain, fear of leakage and shame”.

While these studies provide useful insights into the communities they surveyed, they cannot provide insight into the situation on the continent.

Effects of menstruation hard to measure

A study in rural Malawi used data from the Malawi Schooling and Adolescent Survey to  estimate that 0.5% of the 179 school girls surveyed were absent due to menstruation on the last school day before the survey. Fourteen girls (7.8%) reported having missed school since the beginning of the school year due to menstruation.

The results from the Malawian study were lower than the researchers expected. They think this could be due to “both the potential embarrassment of revealing something so private to the interviewer and the way this question was asked”.

They also suggest that girls may have reported missing school for health reasons – such as being sick – instead of disclosing that it was due to menstruation.

Interestingly, the study noted that data from UNICEF’s 2005-2006 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey revealed similar rates of abstention for boys and girls in 12 African countries.

They go on to say that “if menstruation does indeed affect school attendance for girls, other factors that contribute to absenteeism are more prominent for boys”.

Conclusion: No research supports ‘widely cited’ claim

The widely cited claim that 1 in 10 school-age girls in Africa miss school due to menstruation is unfounded.

The statistic is often attributed to UNICEF and UNESCO but both organisations said they were not sure of its original source.

A number of small local studies in African countries have shown varying degrees of absenteeism due to menstruation. But the studies are not representative of the continent as a whole.


Additional reading

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

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