Home / News / Blog / Poor girls in Ethiopia: menstruation and immobilisation
Ethiopia
sponsor a child ethiopia
Drought, famine and civil war have taken its toll on Ethiopian families. With life expectancy low, high illiteracy and widespread poverty, opportunities for many Ethiopian children are limited. We provide a happy, healthy start in life for children in seven locations throughout Ethiopia. … more about our charity work in Ethiopia

Poor girls in Ethiopia: menstruation and immobilisation

(Photo: Rod Waddington via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA))
(Photo: Rod Waddington via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA))

Throughout history, women have been immobilised in many ways. A recurring cause of immobilisation is the monthly cycle of menstruation. In some countries, women continue to be marginalised and stigmatised during their period, restricting them from attending school or taking part in society. Our guest blogger, Marilyn Herman, explores these issues in Ethiopia.

The cultural immobilization of women is a phenomenon which extends to global and historical dimensions. In China this was historically achieved over the centuries through the practice of footbinding. In some middle-eastern societies, it has been historically achieved through confining women to the home. In many countries particularly in the cultural West, it has been achieved through the dictates of fashion: tightly-laced corsets, or footwear that a woman can barely walk in, let alone run in.

In Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, immobility – both physical and economical – of women is related to menstruation among women and girls from more impoverished backgrounds. Although, the extent to which the effects of menstruation immobilizes women in Africa does not begin to compare to the immobilizing practice, in Victorian England, of incarcerating women suffering from pre-menstrual syndrome – or “hysteria” as it was termed – in lunatic asylums!

To return to present-day UK, a woman earning the minimum national wage may have to work some 483 hours to pay for the cost of sanitary protection and painkillers for menstrual cramps throughout her menstrual life! This substantially reduces time and income available to women as compared with men.

Tigray girl

Poverty and social stigma

In Ethiopia, for girls and women from very low income or impoverished families, sanitary towels, and even underwear to attach them to, are unaffordable items. In urban areas, water is often bought by the jerrycan for cooking, drinking and washing, and water required for extra washing during menstruation may not be affordable.

As a result of these factors, girls from such backgrounds may miss up to 50 days of schooling per year from the time of the onset of their menstruation. Rather than the cost of menstrual management consuming income, substantial amounts of productive time is lost.

There are, of course, factors other than economical, which account for girls’ relative absence from school during menstruation. Among various ethnic and religious groups, women may be considered to be in a state of impurity while they are menstruating.

Traditionally, this was the case among the Betä Israel (Ethiopian Jews) in their villages; a woman would retire to a specially-designated hut while she was menstruating. Although typically described in the literature as an “isolation hut”, she may have had a small child with her, and would be visited by other women after work. Without stepping or reaching across the boundary of stones surrounding the hut, and without having physical contact with her, they would bring her food, and remain and chat with her.

Once her menstrual period was over, she would wash herself and her clothes in the river and return to her home, her chores, and to society. The Christian neighbours of the Betä Israel, I was told, “admired” this custom of theirs, indicating that although they did not practice this custom themselves, they nevertheless shared the attitudes underlying it.

Taboo subject

Much of the literature on the subject refers to menstruation in Ethiopia generally as being a “taboo subject”, indicating a sense of fear surrounding the concept of menstruation. Such fear, or horror, of menstruation may be related to impurity attributed to it in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, although there are non-Christian groups in Ethiopia.

Billene, in her blog on the website Africanfeminism.com, recounts that when she visited the Debre Libanos Monastery, two hours away from Addis Abeba, she was struck by a list of rules on the attendant’s table at the entrance. The first and foremost of these rules was a ban on women while they were menstruating, which she found unsurprising, having grown up under the influence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

Among the minority ethnic groups in Ethiopia are the Gumuz who inhabit the Benishangul-Gumuz region. Among the Gumuz, a woman’s first menstrual period is a cause of celebration. Yet women are compelled to isolate themselves in the forest during menstruation, because of ideas of pollution and supernatural danger attached to menstrual blood.

A lack of sanitary towels and underwear 

There are, of course, women in Ethiopia from more affluent backgrounds who are able to complete their education, become highly qualified and achieve professional positions. Overall, this indicates that high levels of school absenteeism during girls’ menstruation is a phenomenon to be explained primarily in economic, rather than cultural, terms.

It may be that there is some alignment of cultural differences with economic differences, in a similar way to the UK, where one can speak of class culture and class-related values. Traditionally, for example, working classes have valued going out to work as soon as possible, over remaining in education longer to achieve higher qualifications.

Freweini Mebrahtu from Tigray has set up a factory in Mekelle – to the north of Ethiopia, where she employs a number of women who manufacture reusable sanitary towels, and underwear to attach them to, since she discovered that the more impoverished women did not possess underwear.

However, while her sanitary towels will be reaching a sector of the lower income female population to whom imported or other commercially available brands are inaccessible, impoverished women and girls are unlikely to feel able to set aside a portion of their income to purchase her products.

The organization Girls2Women introduced cloth sanitary-pad-making at a number of schools in Mekelle and Addis Abeba. In their pamphlet Growing Up, the Deputy Vice Principal of Frebret Secondary School gives testimony that since the introduction of these pads, average absenteeism has been reduced from 3 - 5 days, to one day, during a girl’s monthly period.

Bati girlGirls miss school while menstruating

One of the Millenium Development Goals is to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2015. Yet UNICEF estimates that in Africa, one in ten adolescent girls miss school while they are menstruating. Falling behind and failing exams, they then drop out of school.

In the Ethiopian context, menstruation physically immobilizes girls from low-income or impoverished families in terms of keeping them at home from school. As a consequence, it immobilizes them further by impeding their education and their prospects of achieving qualifications which would lead to lifting them out of poverty in the long term, and of having careers.

There are other factors relating to menstrual management which keep girls at home during their periods. A significant one is the lack of adequately private and hygienic toilet facilities at school. Since most teachers are male, they are generally unaware of, or unsympathetic to, the situation.

Menstrual management as an education issue?

The matter of menstrual management and destigmatization among more impoverished sectors of Ethiopian society is essentially about general quality of life, mobility, dignity and combatting feelings of shame attached to menstruation. It is by linking the matter of menstruation almost exclusively to education, demarcated as falling within the realm of girls’ human rights, that charities and governmental bodies feel able to treat it with appropriate gravity.

Accordingly, charities place the onus on the school rather than on the home environment to tackle the issue. There is a well-placed concern with providing adequately hygienic and private toilet facilities for girls at school – but outside school, these girls probably do not have such facilities. A girl who is menstruating will need adequate facilities for washing before she leaves the home to attend school.

Bahir Dar - girl in classroom

Can education make a difference?

The matter of menstrual management and destigmatization among more impoverished sectors of Ethiopian society is essentially about general quality of life, mobility, dignity and combatting feelings of shame attached to menstruation. It is by linking the matter of menstruation almost exclusively to education, demarcated as falling within the realm of girls’ human rights, that charities and governmental bodies feel able to treat it with appropriate gravity.

Accordingly, charities place the onus on the school rather than on the home environment to tackle the issue. There is a well-placed concern with providing adequately hygienic and private toilet facilities for girls at school – but outside school, these girls probably do not have such facilities. A girl who is menstruating will need adequate facilities for washing before she leaves the home to attend school.

The scale of the problem, with some 27 million people living in a state of poverty in Ethiopia, is such that ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Ethiopian government on the national and local levels to implement measures to really get to grips with the problem. It is obviously of great national economic benefit to have a literate population: to have a population able to provide for themselves and to generate wealth, rather than 27 million souls desperately trying to survive below the subsistence line. Especially as Ethiopia has been experiencing a severe brain drain. The universities have been calling for its highest educated and qualified citizens to remain in or return to Ethiopia rather than seek employment overseas. In the meantime, enormously dedicated charities and individuals make whatever headway they can in changing lives.

Since 1974, SOS Children has been supporting vulnerable children and families in Ethiopia. Find out more about our life-transforming work in the country.

Share: