Period Politics

How Powerful Men Limit Girls’ Education Through Their Unrelenting Control Of Women’s Bodies

Young women gather in Haiti.
Young women gather in Haiti.

How is it that our world leaders, nearly all of them male, continue to allow nearly a third of the world’s girls to be out of school, and a tenth of those in school to miss classes during their menstrual cycles? Do they realize that the chronic lack of access to improved sanitation, water, and menstrual hygiene supplies afflicting poor communities in their cities, countries, regions and whole continents might have something to do with the answer?

Only 12 percent of girls worldwide have access to sanitary pads or other menstrual hygiene supplies. In Kenya, where WomenStrong International works, 65 percent of girls are too poor to buy sanitary pads. In India, 113 million girls are at risk of dropping out of school when they get their periods. WomenStrong also works in Haiti and Ghana, and in all of these countries, access to improved water and sanitation is dangerously off-track.

I realize this is complicated. Men in power have a lot on their minds, with important obligations to attend to. And men love women! Those with daughters, of course, treasure them, and most politicians today often go out of their way to make sure their girls are educated and marry well. They will dance and cry at their weddings.

But they’re probably not the ones who actually sat down with those beautiful daughters and educated them when they first started menstruating. They may not even know whether their girls received proper education in menstrual hygiene care, or who gave them that information – these men may have been somewhat squeamish about such topics, considering the importance of transmitting this vital information “a woman’s thing,” best left to a mother or teacher; or it simply may never have occurred to them to ask.

Indeed, when it comes down to it, our leaders don’t seem to realize the first thing about girls — at least, about poor girls, who can’t depend on their fathers’ powerful connections. When these girls go to school, in most of the world they only have access to co-ed bathrooms, where they may find themselves vulnerable to sexual assault. There is usually no clean running water for washing up, and since they can’t afford sanitary pads or extra panties, they’re more likely to stay home from school, rather than soil their clothing and be mortified or bullied all day.

Maybe politicians aren’t aware that every year of missed schooling lowers a girls’ lifetime earning potential by more than 10 percent. Or that she misses more than 10 percent of the instruction when she misses one out of nine months in any given school year, jeopardizing her performance on the vital year-end exams likely to determine her future and whether she can go on to high school.

Even if world leaders can’t relate to girls on a human level, it’s frankly astonishing that they can continue to ignore the simple economic fact that reducing the more-than-30-percent gap in labor force participation would dramatically improve their country’s GDP and global competitiveness. As financial stewards, they might be charged with malpractice — but then such bottom-line arguments haven’t succeeded in persuading legislators that the right thing for human rights and health is actually the smart thing economically; at least, not so far.

In America, where WomenStrong also works in the area of women’s health and wellness, we are seeing a newly flaunted disdain for women and girls among politicians, who seem to feel increasingly keen on turning this disdain into hard policy. Thanks to the Trump administration’s cynical resurrection of the Mexico City policy, $8.8 billion in U.S. foreign development assistance will now be held hostage to grant recipients’ withholding of comprehensive women’s health care, consigning even more girls and young women worldwide to lives of entrenched poverty and ill health.

Now our Republican-led Congress wants to deprive American women, too, of maternity care, one of 10 currently guaranteed “essential care benefits” that includes coverage for prenatal and newborn care. When these educated white Congressmen (and they are all men, drafting these provisions) wonder out loud in open session why they should pay for these things, do they not realize that the women they’re so eager to deprive of care also carry and give birth to boys, possibly including their own sons and grandsons?

Maybe our leaders need some more down-to-earth schooling, so they can connect the dots here. Maybe they need to hear firsthand about the survival tactics learned out of necessity by most of the world’s girls, all of them potential expert witnesses on what it means to be poor and to attend (or not) poorly equipped schools with no toilets, sanitary pads, or clean water.

Closer at hand, perhaps the millions of empathic men who do get this can raise their voices louder and offer their brothers in leadership positions a solid flank that might embolden them to support essential health care for everyone’s wives, daughters, sons, and for future generations.

Or, I’ve got another idea: the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, established to track progress worldwide on the United Nations’ 17 new Sustainable Development Goals, reported last week that every one of the countries where WomenStrong works, including the U.S., remains seriously behind in increasing the proportion of women holding national public office. Maybe one day, once able to reap the educational opportunities they so long for and deserve, girls-turned-to-women will gain sufficient political power and influence to address these profoundly short-sighted gaps in public service delivery, with sane, humane policies designed, at long last, to meet the most fundamental needs of half the world.

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