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Adolescents' experiences of menarche and menstruation in disadvantaged schools in South Africa: a qualitative exploration

Thelma Fennie (Psychology, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa)
Mokgadi Moletsane (Educational Psychology, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa)
Anita Padmanabhanunni (Psychology, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa)

Health Education

ISSN: 0965-4283

Article publication date: 4 May 2021

Issue publication date: 21 May 2021

303

Abstract

Purpose

This study explores how menstruation is perceived, experienced and navigated by school-going adolescent girls living in low-to-middle income settings in South Africa. Existing research from developing countries suggest that the onset of menstruation has implications for school attendance and academic performance. There is evidence that menstrual cycle–related symptoms (primarily physical) lead to difficulties in, or interference with, and disengagement from school, social relations, and physical activities (van Iersel et al., 2016; Steiner et al., 2011; Kiesner and Pastore, 2010; Taras, 2005). The onset of menstruation can be shame-inducing and has been associated with anxiety and confusion. Few studies have been conducted on menstruation in countries with a history of sectarian violence and characterised by substantial socio-economic disparities and high levels of gender-based violence. Understanding the experiences of girls in these contexts is important in generating contextually-grounded knowledge and appropriate interventions.

Design/methodology/approach

A qualitative, exploratory, descriptive and contextual research design was used to collect data from 48 adolescent girls aged 13–16 year-old. A total of six focus group discussions (FGDs) were conducted using a semi-structured questionnaire among a purposive sampling method. Data collected were transcribed verbatim and thematically analysed. Written parental consent was obtained for participants under 18 years old.

Findings

The findings illustrated complex psychological experiences in response to menarche and menstruation. Experiences of shame in relation to menstruation were aggravated by unsupportive responses from school teachers. Challenges such as scarcity of sanitary products were experienced as creating a barrier for girls' school attendance.

Research limitations/implications

Existing research from developing countries suggests that the onset of menstruation has implications for school attendance and academic performance. The research data includes the views of adolescent learners and their negative reactions and positive experiences towards menstruation within the school environment.

Practical implications

Given the comparative paucity of research emerging from developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa, this paper addresses an important gap in the literature by providing contextually-nuanced information about the menstrual experiences of adolescent girls. The study can further provide information for efforts made by the Department of Education and Department of Health regarding the impact of menstruation on adolescent girls' school attendance.

Social implications

This study provides important insights regarding the experiences of South African school girls in relation to menstruation. Although dominant feelings of shame, confusion and disgust may surround menstruation, the study also highlighted potential positive experiences associated with menstruation. Teachers and school administrators need to be oriented towards the needs of adolescent girls if issues regarding poor school attendance are to be addressed.

Originality/value

To reduce absenteeism in schools and ensure learners are provided with improved allocation of sanitary products in schools, there is a need for the advocacy regarding sexuality education and resources to promote the psychological health of adolescent girls.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

The assistance of Yolanda Mayman is acknowledged.

Funding: The study was funded by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (Grant number: 113323).

Citation

Fennie, T., Moletsane, M. and Padmanabhanunni, A. (2021), "Adolescents' experiences of menarche and menstruation in disadvantaged schools in South Africa: a qualitative exploration", Health Education, Vol. 121 No. 4, pp. 408-419. https://doi.org/10.1108/HE-12-2020-0122

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited

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