Being a teenager isn’t easy, regardless of which continent you’re on.
The transition from childhood to adulthood is universally confusing and stressful. Add that to the pressures of a high school education and it’s a miracle any of us make it through.
However, different areas of the world have different forms and degrees of challenge. For adolescent girls in Ethiopia, the back-to-school experience is colored with the very real possibility of humiliation and shame once a month. The fear of embarrassment and desire to stay home while on their periods works against the desire to succeed and be teachers, engineers, and mathematicians.
We were lucky enough to get an inside look at the world teenage girls from Ethiopia navigate through a couple of insiders: Maza and Yordanos.
When you ask Maza what she wants to be known for, she doesn’t hesitate to answer: sports and keeping secrets. She has three siblings, two brothers and a sister and they all live in Mekelle. She dreams of being a mathematician.
Yordanos is a high-energy girl who loves to dance. She describes herself as playful. She has one younger sister and really wants to be a teacher.
Their school day resembles a typical school day in the US. An all-school assembly and a few classes fill the morning. After the lunch break, they complete the remaining classes and head home for chores, dinner, and some time for study.
But a period can derail a girl’s happy, typical day. Yordanos and Maza helped us understand what girls do if they get their period while at school.
First, if the girl notices that she has gotten her period before others do and she’s in class, she waits until she is the last one in the room before heading to the door.
Once outside the classroom, she wordlessly recruits her friends to walk behind her, shielding her from the eyes of other students, particularly the boys. They make their way to the school’s girls club, where the principal, a woman determined to help her female students stay in school, keeps a supply of Mariam Seba sanitary pads.
Depending on the amount of menstrual blood that is visible, the girl has the option of changing into a spare skirt that the principal has made available. This skirt is a luxury. In most schools, there is only one uniform per person and little to no water, so girls have to return home if they get their periods while in class. Or they can remain and risk embarrassment, with scarves and other pieces of cloth wrapped around their waists to hide the evidence.
The level of shame and embarrassment a girl in Tigray experiences because of her period is much higher than it would be in the US. There are few if any formal classes to explain that menstruation is normal, and are no classes for boys. And, because talking about periods is still taboo in most homes, girls do not learn about periods from their mothers or family. Most girls have to learn from experience, their equally uninformed peers, or from teachers in the girls club if they are fortunate enough to have a club at their school.
After an accident, some girls would rather stay home during their period than live through the shame and embarrassment again. This causes the girls to fall behind in school and, in some cases, to drop out.
While Maza, Yordanos, and other the girls at this school in Mekelle say that this rarely happens at their school, they agree it is because the teacher makes sanitary pads available and that many girls are able to use the pads at home. This is not the case for girls in other areas of Ethiopia.
For people in the US with so many options for menstrual hygiene, it is hard to believe that not having affordable sanitary pads could prevent a girl from going to school and getting a good education, but it happens every day.
We can’t keep every girl in school around the world, but, with your help, we can make uninterrupted education possible for many girls in rural Ethiopia.
Just $4 provides sanitary pads to one girl for 12-18 months. Studies have shown that an additional year of secondary school can raise a woman’s future earning potential by 15 to 25 percent.