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You can’t solve a problem you don’t understand

Updated: Aug 26, 2018

“One day, this smart girl in our class was asked to answer a question that involved her writing the answer on the blackboard, with her back to the class. As she was writing, we all noticed the blood on her pants, but it was clear that she had no idea she had her period. When she turned around, the whole class was staring at her and she didn’t know why. After she returned to her seat and sat down, she touched the blood and was so ashamed of herself that she wanted to drop out of school.”

– Student in rural Ethiopia

If you’re a woman, you can most likely empathize with this mortifying experience, and the desire to avoid it at all costs. Now imagine you have no idea why you’re in that position to begin with, and have nothing that will effectively prevent it from happening again. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, you would probably want to drop out of school too.

In Ethiopia, menstruation is taboo – embarrassing to talk about and even more embarrassing to experience. To make matters worse, if a girl is unprepared for menstruation, her first period can also be very frightening.

Plenty of evidence exists to suggest that misinformation and negative beliefs about menstruation are widespread in rural Ethiopia, but few people have investigated this subject in detail.

Until now.

ethiopian students learning about menstruation from dignity period

Dignity Period, in collaboration with our partners Mekelle University and Mariam Seba Sanitary Products Factory, is undertaking a research study of menstruation, called the Menstrual Dignity Project. The goal of the project is to improve access to adequate menstrual hygiene for girls in Ethiopia through a combination of improved education and the provision of locally produced, low-cost, reusable, environmentally friendly menstrual pads.

Male and female researchers from Mekelle University recently completed a preliminary survey of 428 households in 10 sub-districts (5 urban, 5 rural), exploring community attitudes concerning menstruation and menstrual hygiene.

“This type of research is critical,” according to Dr. Lewis Wall, President of Dignity Period, “if we are to understand the communities in which we want to work, so that we can effectively address gaps in girls’ knowledge about menstruation and to provide menstrual hygiene products in the most culturally-sensitive and efficient manner.”

The research is designed to:

  • Explore social attitudes and cultural beliefs about menstruation,

  • Assess the general understanding of menstruation basics,

  • Evaluate how attitudes and beliefs about menstruation vary in different regions and among different groups, and

  • Discover how these beliefs affect school-age girls.

The data collection for the initial portion of the study began in late May of 2015 and was concluded in June 2015. Researchers from the University headed out to rural and urban areas to conduct focus groups, case studies, and individual interviews. To get a broad and cross-sectional view of Ethiopian society, six different types of focus groups were held in these communities:  girls who had not yet had their first periods, menstruating adolescents, mature married women, post-menopausal women, married men, and adolescent boys.

ethiopian students learning about menstruation from dignity period

One researcher said that at first people were embarrassed to talk about this topic. In addition to ensuring that participants were questioned by researchers of the same gender, the researchers took special care in facilitating all discussions, using tried and true methods to encourage participants to open up about their experiences.

The group that was the most difficult to speak with was the group that is affected most – adolescent girls.  Because of their lack of experience in dealing with their periods, and having few people available to ask questions of, they were the most uncomfortable in these interviews.  While we were able to make the girls more comfortable by having female researchers ask questions, this highlights the necessity of education regarding menstruation for this group.

The Menstrual Dignity Project is now conducting a pilot program of the effects of improved menstrual hygiene management on girls’ school attendance.  Researchers will measure baseline school attendance at the beginning of the 2015 – 2016 school year in 15 urban and rural schools prior to distributing pads and educational materials in schools.  Both girls and boys will be receive menstrual education materials, and girls will be given a supply of reusable menstrual pads.  School attendance will be tracked after this intervention and compared to the baseline-setting period (September 2015 – January 2016).

“We expect to demonstrate an improvement in school attendance by girls after the intervention occurs,” said Dr. Wall.  “No girl should have to miss school because of menstrual hygiene needs.”

We look forward to sharing the pilot study results with you soon, and telling you how we’re using the study to make it easier for girls to get the menstrual hygiene supplies they need so they can stay in school. Follow us on Facebook, and check back on the website for updates!


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