How to help African girls? Build toilets.

Poor sanitation makes it harder for girls in sub-Saharan Africa to stay in school.

By Page Rockwell

Published December 23, 2005 7:03PM (EST)

Everyone should check out the grim and moving story on barriers to Ethoipian girls attending school in today's New York Times. The feature points out that, in addition to expected deterrents like the high cost of school supplies and family pressure to do housework or get married instead of getting an education, girls in sub-Saharan Africa are also substantially discouraged by schools' lack of toilets.

It makes sense: Girls of all ages may be understandably reluctant to relieve themselves in open fields, especially in front of their mostly male classmates and teachers. And it only gets worse when they get their periods. Most towns don't have sanitary napkins, and more than half of Ethiopia's schools don't have toilets or water. The Times reports that the United Nations Children's fund "estimates that one in 10 school-age African girls either skips school during menstruation or drops out entirely because of lack of sanitation."

The lack of facilities may also be a deterrent to female teachers -- the Times article tells the distressing story of a fifth-grade teacher whose strategy of urinating only before and after school hours has given her a kidney infection.

Countries like Guinea and Nigeria have found that when schools improve sanitation, girls' enrollment rates go up and dropout rates plummet. And it's in the countries' interests to increase girls' school attendance -- according to the World Bank, equal access to education and assets in sub-Saharan Africa would boost the region's gross national product by almost an entire percentage point each year.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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