Nith and Nuth are Pencils of Promise’s (PoP) first students. In 2009, they began at PoP’s first pre-school in Pha Theung village, only a 40 minute drive out of Luang Prabang in Laos. I recently had the opportunity to travel back to this village. Against social, economic and health-related odds, Nith and Nuth are still there. It was incredible to see these two amazing girls learning, smiling and excited to conquer primary school.
Prior to my journey, I was not sure if I would meet Nith and Nuth on this visit. The uncertainty I felt did not stem from their lack of desire to attend school or their family’s unwillingness to support education. Most young girls in Laos, face many barriers in education. These barriers increase as they approach adolescence, begin menstruating, are deemed of marriageable age and attend secondary school. In the confusing and challenging period of adolescence, Nith, Nuth and their female peers might start asking themselves the following questions:
Where is the toilet?
In Laos, 2 in 3 primary schools nationwide do not have toilets. Of those with facilities, only one-fourth are functioning and fewer are gender segregated. These schools are problematic for and contribute to their non-attendance.
How do I maintain a clean and healthy body?
Information about menstrual and reproductive health is often passed from generation to generation, if it is even discussed in the home at all. Popular water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) curriculums often focus on clean water, hand washing and gender-neutral hygiene practices. Girls are left to feel ashamed of their bodies and shy away from asking for guidance. This results in unsanitary and dangerous self-treatment.
Where can I go to have my baby?
Laos has the highest levels of maternal mortality rates in the region with 85% of births in Laos occurring in the home. Among the perceived disadvantages of giving birth at a health facility are cost, accessibility, dislike of medical procedures, lack of privacy and previous negative experiences. Young girls, often have no help or assistance in the birthing process.
Despite the challenges, girls in Laos are more educated than the generation before them. In 2012, 89% of girls attended lower secondary school, a ratio that hovered at 70% in 1990. A more impressive jump is the 77% of women enrolled in tertiary education, up from only 42% in 1990.
Girls should be able to ask questions about menstrual hygiene, reproductive and maternal health in the classroom. Schools, hospitals and organizations should empower females in the classroom and educate both boys and girls about menstrual hygiene management as well as include other health lessons in their school curricula.
As attendance rates continue to rise, it is my hope that the demand for more information about menstrual hygiene management, maternal and reproductive health will become available. The cultural taboos are strong surrounding these topics. However, as long as driven young girls like Nith and Nuth stay in school, there will be no choice but to include menstrual hygiene management and other health lessons into school curriculum.