It is a well-established fact that around 23% of girls drop out of school every year in India due to inadequate menstrual hygiene facilities including lack of access to functioning toilets for girls in 66% of schools. Research is also starting to show, however, a significant link between girls dropping out of school because of anaemia, exacerbated by the onset of puberty and menstruation, causing drop out due to illness in addition to lack of sanitary facilities. In fact, according to WHO estimates, India has one of the highest levels of anaemia in the world mostly affecting adolescent girls in a country that contains 20% of the world’s adolescent population.
Anaemia has been found to affect up to 79% of children in India and around 56% of girls between the ages of 15 and 19, rising to 70% of girls in some areas such as Jharkhand. High rates of anaemia are thought to be due to low levels of iron content in women’s diets from early childhood. Anaemia can have devastating effects medically on mental development, physical growth and on the development of women’s children later in life. Recent data show that 30 per cent of girls aged 15-19 are currently married or in union, compared to only 5 per cent of boys of the same age and therefore, potential children are highly susceptible to health problems because of the prevalence of anaemia within this age group of girls.
Anaemia can also have a detrimental impact academically, with girls often dropping out of school because they fall behind due to absence caused by illness. Symptoms of anaemia include loss of appetite, weakness, shortness of breath and also heavy menstrual flow, which is particularly problematic where basic menstrual hygiene facilities are lacking. A 2011 study found, for example, that 86% of girls did not change sanitary napkins at school, which was partly attributed to lack of facilities.
HEEALS appreciates that a holistic approach is needed to tackle these various integrated issues related to the problem of menstrual hygiene and female education. In addition to trying to raise money to build toilets, HEEALS is also planning to run some health camps in August to screen girls for anaemia and provide iron tablets where necessary guided by empirical evidence that a weekly supplement of 100mg of elemental iron and 500ug folic acid (IFA) is effective in decreasing the incidence and prevalence of anaemia in adolescents. An anaemia prevention programme run in Jharkhand through UNICEF has seen drop-out rates fall from more than 50% to less than 5% for the 656 girls enrolled at school since the start of the scheme showing that dealing with this issue can have truly transformative results.
In order to carry out these programmes, HEEALS needs your support. Visit: www.heeals.org to find out more about its work.