In the secret lives of girls, shame is the great leveler. The logistics of managing the one-week interruption of the ‘biological’ cycle can be a nightmare when you have to go to school. Many girls would rather skip classes than put up with the discomfort exacerbated by long walks to school and the risk of soiling themselves in a place where there are either no toilets or poor ones.
This has long had a small, almost unnoticeable effect on school attendance rates in Sindh’s countryside, small towns and villages. While there are no numbers for this province, the trend has been documented in the north. Results from a recent study in areas affected by the 2005 Kashmir earthquake near the city of Muzaffarabad indicate that almost 50% girls miss school during their cycle, and about 40% of girls do not have access to protective materials to manage this phase. Additionally, Unicef Pakistan said in 2011 that shame during the cycle, limited education from the family on this aspect of biological change, ridicule from boys, a lack of washrooms and facilities to change, clean up and dry re-usable protection material all limited a young girl’s ability to cope.
But the times are slowly changing. A little cotton and some technology can go a long way.
The Express Tribune was not able to find any data on Sindh to support the claim that access to feminine hygiene products improves school attendance. However two sources of information seem to bear this out: studies from Africa and interviews of school principals and grocery store owners in Sindh’s towns and cities.
The phenomenon has been documented in Africa. A 2009 University of Oxford study in Ghana found that girls were missing up to five days of school a month. In test case studies, they found that supplying the students with the feminine hygiene products radically changed their ability to go to school confidently. On average, the rate of absenteeism was halved (from 21% to 9%).
The headmistress of a girls’ school in Old Sukkur, Muneeza Begum, also testified to the problem of absenteeism. According to her estimates, while she has 1,200 students, attendance can go down to as little as 600 at times. “It is a lame excuse that they can’t attend school because of their monthly [cycle],” she said. “I always suggest they use the comfortable stuff and attend class.” But she noticed that as the girls were generally from poor families they could not afford the 150 rupees for one pack. Affordability can be such a key factor in decision making that a non-profit in Rwanda alerted its government to lifting an 18% sales tax on feminine hygiene products. The government agreed, saying it understood this would help girls from poor homes who would otherwise miss school.
Globally, girls who cannot afford the protective material mainly have to make do with cloth, rags or home-stitched cotton pads. These options are neither comfortable and reliable nor hygienic, even if they are cheaper. Generally, in Sindh’s peri-urban areas, girls tend to be aware that they have other choices. This awareness has emerged as companies have spread their distribution networks with well-designed and packaged products at even the smallest grocery store. It is also becoming more acceptable for women to shop for them themselves.
In Tando Muhammad Khan’s Shahid Bazaar, for example, salesman Imtiaz Pali at Chhipa General Store has stocked these products for the last 10 years and his shop is ideally located close to private and public schools and colleges.
SOURCE: WASH IN SCHOOLS, PROCEEDINGS OF THE MENSTRUAL HYGIENE MANAGEMENT IN SCHOOLS VIRTUAL CONFERENCE 2012
A majority of his customers are students and he has found that having pocket money is key to the decisions they make. He says he gets customers from the surrounding countryside but an education seems to make a slight difference. “Girl students are more confident than ordinary ones,” he added, while making a comparison between school-going and illiterate clients.
He has stocked the brands in a corner of his shop and displays them by pack size and price. While many younger women will walk in and pick them off the shelf, he still receives ‘parchis’ or chits of paper with orders from customers who are older and live in the surrounding countryside. Women from the villages send the parchis because they don’t necessarily go to market themselves — their men do.
The demand for feminine hygiene products is most likely closely linked to quality, as introduced by multinational brands. Proctor & Gamble, for example, began to produce the brand Always in Pakistan in 2001. The company did not share any data with The Express Tribune despite repeated requests, but according to an unofficial estimate this brand had 66% of the market share in 2012.
And while it is a sensitive subject in this part of the world, companies such as P&G have used the double-edged ploy of running educational programmes with product campaigns. It was reported by Africa News in 2012 that P&G started an ‘Always Cares’ programme in Nigeria where the company teaches girls ages 13 through 21 about puberty and feminine hygiene. Since 2009, the program has reached more than one million girls a year.
Quality seems to matter here too. Ambreen Musharaf, a lecturer at Government Girls Degree College, Sakrand, said that girls who can afford it will make their purchases on visits to the bigger cities. Otherwise women are stuck with low quality options. “The available [product lines] in very small towns are of low quality therefore our students still use the old [options],” she said. “I see a few girls from good families who mostly visit the bigger cities are more comfortable.”
It certainly helps if institutions such as the 900-student strong Government Girls College, Larkana keep a stock. “The girls are comfortable now,” said Anila Abro, the director physical education, while referring to the trend in switching to feminine hygiene products. “There a few who are still shy to ask for them during school hours but we provide them.”
She vouches for improved attendance rates in the last couple of years because of this change in “life style” as she put it. The girls are more confident during that time of the month and don’t try to avoid gym class either. “The girls have no excuse now. They have thrown away the old stuff that gave them trouble,” she added, referring to the cloth and cotton options.
It appears that being linked to a large urban centre leads to more awareness. Shahida Khokhar, a teacher at the Girls Middle School Dokri, in a taluka of Larkana, said that the use of old protective materials persist in small towns and villages. “Women in rural areas have no idea [about feminine hygiene products] but girl students who interact with their peers in cities, use the new [technology],” she said. “I see that a majority of women in rural areas have a complex about [using them].”
The simple decision to use a certain product has a lot to do with the culture at home and there are differences in the lifestyles of women in cities such as Hyderabad, Sukkur, Mirpurkhas, Larkana and Nawabshah and their surrounding rural areas. Shahida Mushtaq, the principal of Ibn-e-Rushd Girls College in Mirpurkhas, with over 30 years of teaching experience, believes that family background explains the evolution. “Parents want a better life for their daughters — in class and outside class,” she said. “Today’s girls are more advanced and lucky. They [want] the best facilities.” A strong sense of academic competition means that girls do not want to be held back.
“A girl has to attend class no matter what her condition,” stressed Aftab Ahsan Qureshi of Hyderabad’s Nazrat Girls’ Degree College with 5,000 students. “There is no excuse for anything. She has to attend class which ensures success in the rest of her life.” Her tone is markedly no-nonsense, but the college has a reputation across Sindh for enforcing discipline and punctuality. “I didn’t care what a student is facing physically,” she added. “Hyderabad is a city and girls of this city have to compete with those in bigger ones like Karachi.” And while Qureshi, who has worked with girls for 37 years, did not necessarily agree that the introduction of feminine hygiene products had any impact on attendance, she did admit that they had brought about a change.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 25th, 2013.