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Girls' Body Autonomy in Developing Countries


Image Courtesy of Wix


Girls in Canada and other first world countries are lucky to have the opportunity to voice their opinions, go to school, and take care of their bodies when it’s their time of the month. Unfortunately, girls in developing countries are facing a harsh future. In countries across Africa, South America and Asia, girls are dealing with issues such as child marriages, lack of feminine hygiene products, and missed opportunities to have a proper education.


Child marriage


Every girl has the right to decide if, who or when, they want to marry. Unfortunately for millions of girls, this is not the reality. Often, girls have no say in the matter because of the misogyny in their community. 12 million girls under the age of 18 become child brides every year (Buitenbos, 2019). This means that millions of girls are being robbed of their rights and opportunities. Child marriages often force these girls to drop out of school to focus on pleasing their husband and growing a family. They are being deprived of independence and freedom. 


The causes for child marriages vary throughout different regions and communities. However, a major factor is poverty. Within these countries, since there is a high level of gender inequality, girls and women are not seen as effective wage earners. Families will offer their children to be wed for money in return. Younger girls are viewed as being more obedient and respectful, therefore dedicating more of their time to their new family and because of that, the groom would be willing to pay a larger sum of money.


Child marriage is one simple way to diminish the difficult economic conditions families struggle with (Owen, 2020). With a child married into another family, it is one less mouth to provide food for and one less education to support financially. Another factor of child marriage is tradition. It can be influenced by a system of beliefs and societal norms that have been followed for generations (Girls not Brides, 2017). When a girl gets her period for the first time, she is presumed to be a grown woman, and as a woman, the logical next steps in her future are marriage and motherhood. Child marriages are dangerous as they may expose these young girls to sexual, physical and emotional violence.


Educating girls and keeping them in school is a major factor in preventing child marriages. This way, girls can acquire the essential knowledge to find employment and support their family. 


Menstruation


Menstruation is something most girls experience, yet in many regions, girls face difficult barriers when it comes to managing their periods. Menstruation is an essential process in the cycle of life and a constant reality for girls. However, there are widespread attitudes towards it. In many parts of the world, menstruation is seen as shameful and disgusting (Buitenbos, 2020). Because of the lack of education and knowledge on menstrual cycles, the opportunity for girls to go to school is a risk. 


Image Courtesy of : (Buitenbos, 2020)


A report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that one in ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa miss school due to their menstrual cycle. Cultural and religious taboos surrounding women’s menstruation have caused girls to feel ashamed or humiliated to have their period and because of this, they don’t go to school in fear of being teased or shamed. Education surrounding menstruation isn’t available to girls which causes them to be unable to properly take care of themselves during their time of the month. Many schools don’t even provide the proper sanitary products to support girls during their period which is another reason why they will miss school during their cycle. Feminine hygiene products can become very expensive since many families are only earning a few dollars a day.


In Bangladesh, over 80% of menstruating girls and women did not have access to proper hygiene products leaving them at risk of infections. Of this group, 40% admitted that they often missed school during their period. 32% said that they had some knowledge of what menstruation was before it began. This leaves the majority of girls to assume that this natural occurrence could actually be a troubling health issue (Plan International). 


How this issue is being tackled


In June 2017, The Kenyan president signed the Basic Education Amendment Act which guarantees that girls in state school will have access to free and high quality sanitary pads (Buitenbos, 2017). With this law in effect, many girls are now able to go back to school with no worries about how they’ll manage their period. 


Organizations, like Plan International, have helped many developing countries improve access to feminine hygiene products. 


A series of workshops on menstruation was held in Cartagena, Columbia which educated girls on their menstrual cycles and also discussed the issues they face because of their period. 3,600 girls across 15 municipalities were brought together for these workshops (Dogra, 2018).


Final message


I encourage you to reach out to different organizations, like Plan International, and see what you can do to help. Find creative ways to raise awareness and resources towards NGOs that are currently fighting for this cause. All these girls who are presently dealing with these issues cannot resolve them alone. We need to work together and fight for their right of bodily integrity. They deserve to be independent, strong, safe and healthy.

References


Buitenbos, D. (2019, April 23). 5 Surprising Reasons Why Child Marriage Happens. Retrieved

October 8, 2020, from https://stories.plancanada.ca/5-surprising-reasons-why-child-

marriage-happens/

Buitenbos, D. (2017, July 21). Kenya passes historic law to give free sanitary pads to

schoolgirls. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://stories.plancanada.ca/girls-will-never-

miss-school-periods-kenya-passes-historic-law-give-free-sanitary-pads-schoolgirls/

Buitenbos, D. (2020, June 26). A bloody shame: Menstruation is keeping girls out of school.

Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://stories.plancanada.ca/a-bloody-shame-6-reasons-

why-menstruation-is-keeping-girls-out-of-school/

Dogra, K. (2018, May 25). Keeping Colombian Girls in School Starts with Ending Period

Shaming. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://stories.plancanada.ca/keeping-

colombian-girls-school-starts-ending-period-shaming-v2/

Girls Not Brides. (2017, August 09). Why does child marriage happen? Retrieved October 8,

2020, from https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/why-does-it-happen/

Owen, J. (2020, August 24). Child marriage: Facts and how to help. Retrieved October 8, 2020,

from https://www.worldvision.ca/stories/gender-equality/child-marriage-facts-and-how-

to-help

Plan International. (n.d.). SaniMart: A cycle of success. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from

https://plancanada.ca/becauseiamagirlproject/sanimart-a-cycle-of-success?

_ga=2.127185101.1550277854.1602168997-1585709290.1602168997



Article Author : Alizeh Qaiser

Article Editors : Edie Whittington, Victoria Huang