Times Economix bloggers Emily Oster and Rebecca Thornton point out that girls in the developing world attend school at a lower rate than boys, and that policymakers have looked to periods as an explanation: "As the story goes, girls miss significant amount of school during menstruation, largely because of lack of modern sanitary products, and this contributes to lower attendance rates, eventual failure, or dropping-out." Procter & Gamble, the Clinton Global Initiative, and other organizations have sought to remedy this problem through free pads and "hygiene education" in developing countries. But their efforts may not be doing much.
When Oster and Thornton studied girls in Nepal, the girls did report missing school due to menstruation. But the effect was very small — Oster and Thornton write that "girls missed only about a third of a day per year due to their period." The economists also gave menstrual cups to some of the girls, but this had no effect on their attendance.
I'm not sure if the cup aspect of the study is conclusive — many women swear by menstrual cups, but they can also be intimidating, especially for young girls. The rest of the findings, however, make a certain amount of sense. We too have echoed the menstruation explanation for girls poor attendance, but really, women have been menstruating all over the world for thousands of years. It's a little ethnocentric to assume that those in developing countries just haven't figured out how to deal with their periods, and need special Western "education." And I'm not the first to point out that Procter & Gamble may be setting up future markets of paying customers by introducing girls to its products.
Focusing on periods may also distract education advocates from deeper issues. Oster and Thornton write,
Part of the appeal of [the menstruation] explanation is that the fix is so easy. There is no need to change attitudes about female schooling, to provide funds for uniforms or textbooks, or to construct new schools closer to girls' homes; instead, the menstruation theory suggests simply providing sanitary products could significantly affect the education gap.
Oster and Thornton didn't study every country in the world, and it's possible that girls outside their sample might benefit from free feminine products. But their study makes clear that periods aren't the whole story, and a maxi pad is not going to solve the problem of female education.
Are ‘Feminine Problems' Keeping Poor Girls Out Of School? [NYT/Economix]