Impoverished girls in Ethiopia: menstruation and immobilisation

EthiopiaSOS Children has six Children’s Villages throughout Ethiopia, along with medical centres, schools and support projects for thousands of Aids Orphans in the community … more about our charity work inEthiopiaSponsor a child in Ethiopia

Mar 07, 2014


Throughout history, women have been immobilised in many ways. A recurring cause of immobilisation is the monthly cycle of menstruation. In some countries, women continue to be marginalised and stigmatised during their period, restricting them from attending school or taking part in society. In the lead up to International Women’s Day our guest blogger, Marilyn Herman, explores these issues in Ethiopia.

The cultural immobilisation of women is a phenomenon which extends to global and historical dimensions. In China this was historically achieved over the centuries through the practice of foot-binding. In some middle-eastern societies, it has been historically achieved through confining women to the home. In many countries particularly in the cultural West, it has been achieved through the dictates of fashion. This includes tightly-laced corsets, or footwear that a woman can barely walk in, let alone run in. 

In Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, physical andeconomic immobility of women, occurs during menstruation. This is especially true among women and girls from more impoverished backgrounds. 

Although, the extent to which the effects of menstruation immobilises women in Africa does not begin to compare to the immobilising practice in Victorian England. During this era, women were incarcerated when suffering from pre-menstrual syndrome – or “hysteria” as it was termed – in lunatic asylums!

To return to present-day UK, consider how much an average woman spends throughout her life on sanitary protection and painkillers for menstrual cramps, in relation to the fact that on average women are on lower income than men. This can be seen as having an immobilising effect among the less affluent sectors of female society. How much more must this be the case among impoverished girls and women in third world countries?

Poverty and social stigma

In Ethiopia, for girls and women from very low income or impoverished families, sanitary towels and even underwear to attach them to, are unaffordable items. In urban areas water is often bought by the jerry-can for cooking, drinking and washing. Water required for extra washing during menstruation may not be affordable. 

As a result of these factors, girls from such backgrounds may miss up to 60 days of schooling per year from the time of the onset of their menstruation. There are factors other than economical, which account for girls’ relative absence from school during menstruation. 

Traditionally, in Betä Israel (Ethiopian Jewish) villages, a woman would retire to a specially-designated hut while she was menstruating. In accordance with Biblical ideas, she was considered to be in a state of impurity. Other women would visit her, without traversing the boundary of stones surrounding the hut, and would bring her food, and remain to chat with her. 

When she finished menstruating, she would wash in the river and return to her home, her chores, and to society. The neighbours of the Betä Israel, I was told, “admired” this custom of theirs. They indicates that although they did not practice this custom themselves, they shared the attitudes underlying it.

Taboo subject


Much of the literature on the subject refers to menstruation in Ethiopia generally as being a “taboo subject”. This indicates the sense of fear surrounding the concept of menstruation. Such fear, or horror, of menstruation may be related to impurity attributed to it in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. 

On her blog on, Billene recounts that when she visited the Debre Libanos Monastery, two hours away from Addis Abeba, she was struck by a list of rules on the attendant’s table at the entrance. First and foremost was a ban on women while they were menstruating, which she found unsurprising having grown up under the influence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

Among the minority ethnic groups in Ethiopia are the Gumuz who inhabit the Benishangul-Gumuz region. While a woman’s first menstrual period is a cause of celebration among the Gumuz, women are compelled to isolate themselves in the forest during menstruation. This is because of ideas of pollution and supernatural danger attached to menstrual blood.

A lack of sanitary towels and underwear 

To the north of Ethiopia, Freweini Mebrahtu from Tigray has set up a factory in Mekelle. Here, she employs women to manufacture reusable sanitary towels, and underwear to attach them to. This was after she discovered that the more impoverished women did not possess underwear. 

Her sanitary towels will reach a sector of the lower income female population to whom other commercially available brands are inaccessible. However, impoverished women and girls are unlikely to feel able to set aside a portion of their income in order to purchase her products. 

The organization Girls2Women introduced cloth sanitary-pad-making at many schools in Mekelle and Addis Abeba. The deputy vice principal of Frebret Secondary School says that since the introduction of these pads, average absenteeism has reduced from 3-5 days during a girl’s menstruation to one day.

Girls miss school while menstruating

One of the Millenium Development Goals is to reduce gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2015. Yet UNICEF estimates that in Africa, one in ten adolescent girls miss school while they are menstruating. Falling behind and failing exams, they then drop out of school. 

In the Ethiopian context, menstruation physically immobilises girls from low-income or impoverished families as they are kept at home from school. As a consequence, they are immobilised further as their education is disrupted and their prospects of achieving qualifications is damaged. 

There are other factors relating to menstrual management which keep girls at home during their periods. A significant one is the lack of adequately private and hygienic toilet facilities at school. Since most teachers are male, they are generally unaware of, or unsympathetic to, the situation. 

Lee and Kerner, in their article entitled “What do menstruating girls need in schools”, outline The Menstrual Hygiene Management programme. It was devised by Save the Children, and makes recommendations extending to governmental level.

Menstrual management as an education issue?

The matter of menstrual management and destigmatisation among more impoverished sectors of Ethiopian society is about quality of life, mobility, dignity and combatting shame. It is by linking the matter of menstruation almost exclusively to education, that charities and governmental bodies feel able to treat it with appropriate gravity. Accordingly, Save The Children puts the onus on the school, rather than on the home environment to tackle the issue. 

There is a concern with providing adequate toilet facilities for girls at school – but outside school, these girls probably do not have such facilities. A girl who is menstruating will need adequate facilities for washing before she leaves the home to attend school. 

Link to physical health issues

As well as treating menstruation management as an education issue, Save The Children links it with physical health issues. It is grouped together with matters concerning general health, nutrition and reproductive health. But it also grouped with matters of HIV/AIDS prevention, as part of their theme of health education to promote lifelong healthy behaviour. Thus, provision of sanitary protection and painkillers for periods is grouped with HPV (cervical cancer) vaccination, de-worming, and malaria treatment. 

In such treatment of the issue, there seems to be a link made between menstruation (A) and the location of a woman’s body from which menstrual blood issues forth (B). 

Since this is also the location of a woman’s body where HIV/AIDS may be transmitted, a further link is made to HIV/AIDS and other diseases (C) – thus, an association is created between menstruation (A) and disease generally (C). 

I wonder whether such an approach is conducive to destigmatising menstruation. Does it say something about the way menstruation may be perceived in Western society?

Solutions from within Ethiopia

With some 27 million people living in a state of poverty in Ethiopia, it is ultimately the responsibility of the Ethiopian government on the national and local levels to get to grips with the problem. 

Ethiopia has been experiencing a severe brain drain. The universities have been calling for its educated and qualified citizens to remain in or return to Ethiopia, rather than seek employment overseas. It is of great national economic benefit to have a literate population. That is, a population able to provide for themselves and to generate wealth, rather than 27 million souls trying to survive below the subsistence line. 

In the meantime, dedicated charities and individuals make whatever headway they can in changing lives.

Since 1974, SOS Children has been supporting vulnerable children and families in Ethiopia. Find out more about our life-transforming work in the country.

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