Most rural-based schools in developing countries are characterised by poor infrastructure, dilapidated ablution facilities, poorly trained teaching staff, and weak School Governing Bodies. In South Africa, many young girls do not attend school, and, of those who attend school many drop out before completing their matric/Grade 12 certificate. Research shows that the dropout rate for young girls is particularly high in Grade 7 and 9. Reasons include, food insecurity, lack of transport to school, the impact of HIV/AIDS on children and families, teenage pregnancies, absence of adequate toilets and washing facilities and child labour.
Reflection on some of these aspects and the fact that the highest dropout rates for girls are in Grade 7 and 9 (Ages 12-15) led to the suspicion that puberty and onset of menstruation might also be involved in the high dropout rate during this period.
Focus group research with young girls (Eastern Cape), in the three district municipalities of OR Tambo, Chris Hani and Ukhahlamba, confirmed this. Most young girls had very little knowledge of adolescent reproductive health and specifically puberty (their mothers, older women and teachers had neither the knowledge not the skills to teach them). They had little or no access to sanitary towels (costs, availability and lack of knowledge of how, when, and why to use sanitary towels mitigated against this). Menstruation was discriminated against and girls were shamed, teased, and made to feel bad. School toilets and wash-up facilities were limited or non-existent. This meant that any girl having her period at school without sanitary towels and no private toilet and wash-up facilities was likely to have blood on her clothes and become a figure of extreme embarrassment. The lack of knowledge about female reproductive health and puberty also contributed to teenage pregnancy and possible HIV infection.
The lack of knowledge and skills on puberty and adolescent reproductive health, lack of access to sanitary towels and the absence of adequate toilets and wash-up facilities were key issues that needed to be addressed.
SPF also found that although girls were receiving lessons on HIV/AIDS and condom-usage, this often proved futile as they had no sound grounding in knowledge of their own reproductive health.