To deny a child access to education is a human rights violation, yet girls are less likely to attend school around the world. Attendance rates in secondary schools, for example, vary dramatically between countries:
It's unusual to see girls skip school in the US because of their periods, but research shows that menstruation keeps female students out of class in many developing countries. A new pilot project in Cape Town offers free sanitary products, and is one of many programs trying to address the matter. Evidence suggests, however, that girls also need access to clean, safe bathrooms and shame-free social environments in order for these programs to get them back to school. Since this is such a well-studied problem around the world, we can compare and contrast what has worked in order to find best practices.
How a period can keep a girl out of school
Here's the most commonly cited statistic in this area of research: 1 in 10 girls in Africa miss school because of their period. This is credited to UNICEF; similar findings attributed to the World Bank estimate four days of school are missed every four weeks. Averages aside, it's worth understanding why menstruation encourages girls to skip school. Something as simple as a lack of access to safe bathrooms is a fundamental concern, UNESCO has found:
Studies from South Africa and elsewhere have documented the risks of sexual violence and harassment in latrines, and the importance of including schoolgirls in the planning of latrine location and structures within schools. Toilet facilities must also have doors and locks inside, to ensure girls can privately and safely manage their menses.
A lack of clean environments also plays into a feeling of shame or social embarrassment for other girls, as researchers witnessed in Bolivia. Skipping school can also be a matter of a lack of access to sanitary products. Last year, a Cape Town–based project helped fill the gap between government-promised supplies and girls who still need help. A similarly successful program helped students in Uganda last year. UNICEF provided "sanitary kits" in South Sudan and directly improved attendance.
Why the Cape Town project might not get girls back into class
The Cape Town program is "distributing reusable, washable cloth sanitary towels," which may not be a silver bullet, though washable products like cloths and reusable pads are more cost-effective than disposables. However, there are other factors that should to be considered besides access to products. For example, a study in a small province in eastern South Africa revealed no area school provided soap, and a small study that simply provided products in Nepal found no impact on school attendance.
The Cape Town project is likely to work if access to products is the only thing keeping girls out of class. A period doesn't have be a problem when schools and homes are safe and healthy places in which to live and learn.