Featured, The World at Large

Poverty and Periods: Two Cycles that Need Not Sync

Where can I find an elderly billionaire with a terminal illness and no living relatives? I joked to my friends on my fourth caffeine and amphetamine-fueled all-nighter of the week.image1 We were all swamped with work, busy memorizing half a semester’s worth of material the night before an exam that would ultimately determine a quarter of our grades. I took a study break and scrolled through memes on my phone, as one does. Remember ladies, it doesn’t matter how well you do on your finals as long as your future husband is doing well on his, quipped a popular parody account on Twitter. I smirked. Retweet!!! Any female college student who claims that she has never fantasized about launching a career in exotic dancing during finals week is either a bold-faced liar or possesses an admirable, ironclad work ethic that I truly envy. We are all guilty of this; however, the truth is, receiving an education is a liberty that many females in America, myself included, take for granted.

The gender gap in education is so significant in impoverished regions of Africa and the Middle East, the United Nations listed “promoting gender equality and empowering women” in Northern Africa and the Arab world as one of the eight international Millennium Sustainable Development Goals at the Millennium Summit in September of 2000. The deadline for this goal was 2015; however, in reality, only 48% of countries actually achieved this objective in secondary education by the deadline. In 2015, UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report noted that half of all women in Sub-Saharan Africa were still illiterate. The widest gender parity in education currently exists in the Middle East, where 80% of out-of-school girls will never attend school, compared to 16% of out-of-school boys. The Population Reference Bureau on the Middle East and North Africa recently conducted a survey in which an “overwhelming majority” of female respondents in the Middle East reported that if they could only afford to send one child to school, they would choose their son over their daughter. Since women currently only earn 10% of global revenue and own 1% of global property, families without a husband or father figure are particularly susceptible to poverty.

One way for girls to break the poverty cycle in Africa and the Middle East is through education. This past November, I had the opportunity to travel to Marrakesh, Morocco where I was introduced to a girl my age, who had recently been invited to the White House to meet with Michelle Obama as part of the former First Lady’s Let Girls Learn initiative. The girl was selected to attend because of the extraordinary educational accomplishments and research contributions that she was able to achieve despite being raised in a male-dominated society that does not encourage female learning. The girl described the shame that accompanies female scholarship in her community. Morocco, a small country in North Africa, is considered one of the most liberal Islamic nations; however, I listened to the girl recount various obstacles she had to surmount as a female college student, such as disgrace within her culture for defying gender roles with her decision to pursue a higher education. Although it was incredibly inspiring to hear a firsthand account about how a girl my age achieved success when all of the cards were stacked against her, her story told a troubling and eye-opening narrative about the gender gap in education ‒ a humanitarian crisis affecting present-day North Africa and the Middle East. Statistics note that the educational gender gap is narrowing; nevertheless, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that nearly two thirds of the 781 million illiterate adults in the world today are women. To put that number into perspective, there are almost 30 million more illiterate women in the world today than the entire populations of the United States, Mexico, and Canada combined.

The predominant barrier to female education in developing regions of Sub-Saharan Africa and Southwest Asia is undoubtedly poverty; however, one major educational barrier that is often not reported on is the lack of critically needed feminine hygiene products such as tampons, pads, and menstrual cups. As if periods weren’t already inconvenient enough, imagine having to use old banana stems, dried leaves, feathers, dirty rags, grass, mud, sand, or newspapers in lieu of pads or tampons every month in order to be able to participate in your normal daily routine, which includes going to school. Imagine feeling so desperate for sanitary products that you resort to prostitution to be able to afford them. One study revealed that girls between the ages of ten and 19 in Mukuru, Nairobi reported having sex with older men in order to obtain money for pads, a basic item that many American women take for granted. According to UNICEF, one in ten teenage girls in these developing areas is unable to attend school every month during her period and ultimately ends up dropping out of school altogether due to a widespread scarcity of these necessities. “It’s like the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” says Marni Somer, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea. “There are many things that make going to school difficult, and it’s one more thing.” Whether they cannot afford expensive sanitary products, do not have privacy or proper disposal facilities at school, or simply lack sex education, millions of female students are being set back in their educations approximately 20% of the time because of their periods.

image2 (1)An additional challenge is the fact that 500 million girls around the world lack adequate sanitary disposal facilities. In other words, providing girls with pads and tampons will only solve half of the problem; they will have nowhere to dispose of them afterwards. One potential solution to this problem would be to provide girls in these regions with menstrual cups, which can be inserted for up to twelve hours, emptied, and reused for up to ten years, or washable pads. However, unfortunately, this leads to another problem that is prevalent in rural Africa – often times there are no bathroom facilities. According to the New York Times, more than half of the 13,181 primary schools in Ethiopia “lack water, more than half lack latrines and some lack both.” Female students are frequently left without privacy and sanitation. At the very least, providing girls with antibacterial wipes would help improve menstrual hygiene. Somer pointed out that “even subtle design changes, such as providing separate bathrooms for boys and girls, and installing sinks in locations where girls can wash blood off their hands in private, can make a big difference.”

Many statistics show that educating women positively correlates with a country’s gross national product as well as a higher life expectancy rate. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women states that, “investing in women’s economic empowerment” is unequivocally linked to “gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth.” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has similarly reported that the “limited education and employment opportunities for women in Africa reduce annual per capita growth by 0.8%. Had this growth taken place, Africa’s economies would have doubled over the past 30 years.” The International Labour Organisation (ILO) emphasizes that closing the gender gap in education is crucial to stimulating economic growth in developing nations. Statistics show that receiving a secondary education leads to a 25% higher salary for women later in life. According to the report, one way females in the workforce could generate economic growth in the Middle East and Africa is that by earning a second income, families can afford to allocate more spending into financing their children’s education. The report also notes that women bring a valuable perspective to firms, citing a gender-inclusion study conducted in Jordan that indicated firms composed of several female directors exhibited three times more profitable returns on assets when compared to their all-male counterparts. In addition to economic advantages to female education, there are also many health benefits linked to higher learning. UNICEF reports that, “educated women are less likely to marry early and against their will; less likely to die in childbirth; more likely to have healthy babies; and are more likely to send their children to school.” Women who continue their education, postponing marriage and motherhood, tend to be “better-informed mothers” and are more likely to vaccinate their children, which could help combat child mortality and malnutrition. Educated women are also more likely to have a better understanding of HIV prevention, and consequently have safer sex. The Global Campaign for Education has stated that if all girls received a primary education, “the economic impact of HIV/AIDS could be greatly reduced and around 700,000 cases of HIV in young adults could be prevented each year.”

I am always perplexed while reading shitty poorly-written Odyssey articles, whose thesis is something ignorant, along the lines of: “I am a Female and I’m So Over Feminists” because there are literally no downsides to advocating for female education and full female integration into the economy. The fact that you are able to write an article shows that you are not one of the 520 million adult women around the world who do not possess the ability to read or write; therefore, it is an understandable misconception to assume that feminism is an issue that has no bearing on your life. In reality, global female empowerment has a wide-ranging series of effects that impact your life every day in numerous ways. For instance, educating women is good for the economy ‒ it is linked to higher per capita income and improves the quality and productivity of the workforce. The Global Partnership for Education reported that “a one percentage point increase in female education raises the average gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3 percentage points and raises annual GDP growth rates by 0.2 percentage points.”image3 (1) In addition, educated women are better mothers, who raise healthier children and are less likely to contract or spread HIV, which drives down national and global healthcare expenses.
Educating women even has environmental benefits ‒ an increase in female leaders is associated with “lower levels of population growth and the subsequent reduction of pressures related to climate change.”

Do you care about the economy? The price of healthcare? HIV prevention, or climate change? The next time you catch yourself bitching about midterms, or your period, or the devil’s duo ‒ envision 3,300 Ugandan girls fashioning makeshift pads out of rotting banana pulp just to get the opportunity to take exams. Try donating to one of the resources in the links below instead:

Dignity Period             Femme International               Days for Girls               Afripads

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