Achieving Equity Means Prioritizing the Health of Adolescent Girls

This blog by Sanjana Vijayann was originally posted by RESULTS Canada, an ACTION partner. Sanjana Vijayann is a RESULTS Canada citizen advocate and student at the University of Manitoba. She founded the RESULTS Canada group at her university in 2014 and has since brought together students to learn about advocacy, take action and work towards an end to extreme poverty. She currently lives in Moshi, Tanzania, completing a fellowship with Anza, an organization focused on economic empowerment and community benefit in the Kilimanjaro region.

“Our toilets were very old. We didn’t have regular running water and I remember that we suffered from [urinary tract infections] regularly because of the lack of hygienic washrooms” – Nina

“Toilets? We had one but it was dirty and no one could use it. We just go behind bushes. Everyone does.” – Maasai student

“Oh yeah, I think the girls definitely didn’t come to school during their period because they weren’t comfortable using the toilet facilities they had. They had one toilet for the whole school and it was very dirty with no water. They were scared.” – Issa

Inadequate access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities have implications for not only a girl’s health but also reaching wider development goals. UNICEF estimates that about 10% of school-age girls in Africa do not attend school during menstruation or drop out due to the lack of access to facilities to manage their menstruation.

Insufficient facilities at school make it especially difficult for adolescent girls. In 2009, UNICEF conducted a study in 16 districts in Tanzania and found that only 11% of schools had enough toilets to safely serve each school’s population. 52% of all schools had no doors on their latrines, 92% had no functional hand washing facilities and 99% of schools had no soap. The lack of clean running water, sanitary places for disposal of pads, access to private spaces to change menstrual products or wash stained clothes all pose as educational barriers and increase the gender gap in education.

Sanjana-blog-toilet Sanjana-blog-toilet-2

The pictures shown here were taken at the Mangoto Secondary School in Tanzania. This is an example of the state of toilets in many schools within the Kilimanjaro region. In the toilet block shown above, there were 5 toilets, 4 of which were either blocked with rocks or had broken pipes. Almost all of them had missing doors. There was one working latrine but it had no running water.

This starkly illustrates the common barriers adolescent girls face. Shame, stigma and embarrassment of using the facilities without doors or having no running water to wash reusable menstrual products are all things we can empathize with. The lack of soap, hand washing facilities and access to privacy all contribute to absenteeism in school.

We cannot allow the lack of hygiene facilities or something as naturally occurring as a period to stand in the way of an adolescent girl’s education. We need to reduce stigma around the menstrual cycle through continued education and conversation about WASH and its particular effects on girls. With this, we can act upon and reverse these startling statistics and achieve greater equity in health and education for girls.

As a citizen advocate, I urge all of you to remain restless and hold decision-makers to account for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals and putting equity first. As we celebrate the International Day of the Girl, let’s commit to removing the hurdles girls face to achieving better health and education outcomes.