Is There A Period Gap?

Is There A Period Gap?

Learn more about the issue of school absenteeism and how a lack of hygiene supplies impacts children.



In this post I’ll walk you through the school test data we are collecting in Lusaka and explain why it is so critically important to provide girls with the feminine hygiene supplies they need.

In a recent blog post we documented the impact of Re-Usable Feminine Hygiene Pads in our Lusaka program and the cultural norm of girls skipping school while on their period.

In that post I said,

Girls In Ngombe Are Missing School Because Of This Issue: We validated the fact in the Ngombe community that girls do commonly stay home when they are on their period, (we watched the hands raised as they answered the questions). Statistically it has been documented that girls in Africa miss about 6 weeks of school each year for this reason. That is a massive systematic dis-advantage over the boys in school. We also have the test results from the Needs Care School to prove that girls do worse than boys on the Secondary School Exams, (yes, we have actually statistical test data). Our plan is to document the test results over the next few years and also track user adoption to statistically prove our product has serious social (and educational) value.


Context: Educational Achievement

Education is the key to escaping extreme poverty. Everybody knows that – and yet there is still an alarming rate of illiteracy – in particular in the female population in sub-saharan Africa. It is wise to stop and ask the question, “why?”

I’m sure there are many reasons why girls are under-achieving in school, but one simple reason is very likely that there is a cultural practice of having girls stay home from school when they are on their period. It happens because they don’t have product to use. We know this is happening. It’s not theory.

Therefore, the goal of our Sew Powerful Purse program is to provide girls with Menstruation Hygiene Management (MHM) supplies and training. All kids need school supplies to help improve educational achievement. But girls in particular have this additional health challenge to overcome.

So if we really believe this is a root cause of poverty, then it begs a pretty simple question;

If you’re not at school when you’re on your period – how much do you fall behind? 


Testing Methodology

Fortunately we have a very clear testing method that will help us answer this question – The 7th Grade Exams.

As background (For Americans) – in Sub-Saharan Africa the school system includes two stages, “primary school” and “secondary school”. Primary school is what we in America call “elementary school”. It is completed with a major test that determines whether or not you are eligible to attend secondary school, which is what we in America call “high school.”  That test is what I call a “go or stop” type exam. If you pass it you have the academic right to attend secondary school, (but of course you still have to be able to do it financially and socially). But if you fail – then you are done with your formal schooling. Time to grow up, get married, whatever.

So it is at this point in African students learning journey that many of them hit the wall.

Personal side note – This topic is near and dear to my heart since I was (pretty much) unable to read or write until around the 5th grade. That’s when I got put into the “learning center” at Lincoln Elementary and the nice teachers there helped me figure it all out. By 6th grade I was able to re-enter the “normal” classes, but at the lowest academic level. I was (barely) a “C” student all the way through High School. But in college I hit my learning stride and (miracle) ended up graduating with honors (3.695 GPA) and a double major from a private University. My graduate degree wasn’t as glorious in terms of GPA, but I still finished my MBA pretty easily. I say all of this to explain that – if I had grown up in Africa – I guarantee I would have failed my 7th grade exams. I can’t imagine that version of my life.


Girls Vs. Boys Results

So as I’ve mentioned, we have the test data for the Needs Care School in Lusaka where we operate our program. It clearly shows girls under achieve on the 7th grade exams compared to the boys by a significant margin. Is this the result of what could be called, “the period gap?” I’m not sure we know for sure, but I think it s a good hypothesis to test. Here is what the last three year’s data shows:

Percentage of students that take and pass the 7th Grade Exams:

Understanding The Data 

To explain the data we need to break down the categories as follows:

Girls Data including the number of girls in 7th grade and those who passed the test.

Note: I’ve been told that Zambia Government testing method adjusts the girls passing rate to attempt to compensate for these issues. If that is true, then the “gap” is even wider than these results indicate. In other words, they are passing girls that would otherwise fail. I don’t know how to factor this information into our research, but as I understand it, the practice is occurring.


Boys Data including the number of boys in 7th grade and those who passed the test:

The math is fairly simple and it supports our working theory – that attendance related to periods is involved. On average girls under achieve at a rate of 8.6% over the last three year’s of results.

An important note: I’m not an Academic, nor am I a statistical researcher. But I believe the math is correct – and it shows there is under-achievement. Whether we can attribute that result to the fact that girls stay home from school can be debated. Maybe there are other causes. I would LOVE to call on the gifted experts at the Gates Foundation, or other interested researchers to help us document this issue at other locations.

Finding Out Together:

One clear way to find out the answer to this question is to provide the girls with the supplies they need – and then measure the result over time. If the girls get the MHM product, begin attending school, and the test results don’t improve – then we’ll know it wasn’t caused by this issue. Time will tell.

Over the coming years we will update this post – and this topic – to include new lessons learned.

We want to thank everyone who is helping us expand and develop the Sew Powerful Purse program so that it can reach more girls.

Together we are making a difference.