At nearly 48 %, the dropout rate for girls in secondary schools in Bangladesh is alarmingly high. While more commonly-known issues like poverty and traveling long distances to school are major barriers, lack of sanitation plays a surprisingly devastating role in driving adolescents girls to drop out of school.
If you’re wondering how lack of sanitary pads and school sanitation connect to girls’ dropout rates, consider the story of Jannati: a student at Dhamur Purbopara High School. Jannati got her period in the middle of taking an exam and was so ashamed that she ran out of the classroom. She was certain she would have to leave the exam unfinished, jeopardizing her grades and her ability to graduate. Jannati’s situation is a familiar one. In a context where menstruation is still largely taboo, the fear of staining their clothes at school leads many girls to skip school during their periods. Clean toilets and access to sanitary pads might not seem directly connected to girls’ education, but they are critical factors for girls working hard to graduate.
Jannati has seen a few of her friends drop out and she was worried the same thing would happen to her. She says,“ I love studying. I don’t want to take a break from it… I would hate to be in the same position as them”. When Jannati ran out of class she saw Muktada Begum, a teacher at her school, and approached her. To Jannati’s relief, Muktada Begum was able to give her a sanitary napkin.
Dhamur Purbopara High School has changed significantly from the days when Jannati’s friends dropped out. In January 2015 it became part of the Best School for Girls campaign initiated by Women and Girls Lead Bangladesh. Among other things, the Best School for Girls campaign encourages schools to form Student Councils that monitor drop-out rates and work to make their schools more girl-friendly.
The fact that Muktada Begum had a sanitary pad to offer Jannati, exactly when she needed it most, wasn’t a coincidence. Thanks to efforts of the student council members at Jannati’s school, teachers have started keeping sanitary pads at school. According to Muktada, “we did not realize how useful sanitary pads could be for girls before Women and Girls Lead started their campaign in our school…if Jannati didn’t have this pad today, there is a strong chance she would have become a dropout, since she wouldn’t have been able to continue taking the exam.”
Keeping girls in school not only gives them better opportunities to earn a living, but also improves their quality of life by reducing challenges like early marriage and maternal death. That is what motivates WGLG Bangladesh to work with schools all over the country to become more girl-friendly – whether by forming inclusive student councils or providing and maintaining proper toilet facilities for girls. With better-quality learning environments, girls can thrive at school and ensure happier, healthier futures for themselves and their families.