Keeping Girls in School, One Maxi-Pad at a Time

We’re all aware that in poor developing countries, fewer girls than boys attend school. International development “experts” have analyzed the problem to death and have produced heaps of books and reports that offer all sorts of explanations and solutions for the school-attendance gender gap. (Examples: Girls aren’t in school because the culture is patriarchal. The solution is to offer parents cash or food subsidies to keep their daughters in school.)

Sometimes in life, however, problems aren’t as complex as they might seem. I’ve recently come across two pieces of evidence that suggest that part of the gender gap in school attendance is simply a matter of feminine hygiene — or lack of it. With more maxi-pads and more toilets, more adolescent girls could be back in school.

Piece of Evidence #1 (Source: Thomas Friedman’s April 18, 2007, column)

Naisiae Tobiko, a 28-year-old Kenyan woman, noticed that when she was a child, girls from families poorer than hers often came to school, but as they grew older, they missed four days of school each month. Many even ended up dropping out because of missed school days. She asked them what was going on, and they said they could not attend school when they were menstruating because their families could not afford maxi-pads.

“How can I come to a place when I am bleeding?” asked the girls, some of whom were using rags or mud.

Today, it’s Tobiko to the rescue. In partnership with the Girl Child Network and other NGOs, she distributes free menstrual products to girls. So far she’s reached 189,000 girls out of a target of 500,000. More maxi-pads equals more educated young women, which equals more informed moms, which equals healthier, happier children in the next generation.

Piece of Evidence #2 (Source: Page 378 of William Easterly’s hardcover book The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good and Nov. 29, 2004’s BusinessWeek article “The eBay Way“)

GlobalGiving is a “matchmaking” organization that pairs development projects with funders. In 2002, some teachers in Coimbatore, India, noticed that many girls were leaving school once they reached puberty. The teachers posted a project on GlobalGiving. The project ad was titled “New Toilet Block for School. $5,000.” Four U.S. donors, including a writer from New York City, funded the project. Three months later, the girls had their own toilet block. It turns out that girls had been dropping out en masse because lack of private toilets made them feel embarrassed when they were menstruating. Two years after the toilet block was constructed, 100 girls had stayed in school. GlobalGiving estimates that by 2012, 440 girls will have stayed through graduation — that’s $11.36 per girl to keep her in school.

Sometimes, it’s the small things that make all the difference.