The dismal link between periods and girls’ schooling
By Michelle Lee
Shahana, a young girl from Bangladesh, used cloth rags during her menstrual cycle. One day, she washed the rag and dried it outside to prepare it for reuse. Without her knowledge, a parasite slipped into the rag. When she used the rag the next day, the insect entered her vagina and infected her body. After a week’s worth of stomach pains, she died.
While Shahana’s situation is an extreme case and menstrual-health-related deaths are not ubiquitous, unsanitary methods do result in various urinary and vaginal infections.1 Complications regarding female menstrual health have long remained problematic and unaddressed by both governments and non-governmental organizations. These serious health effects impede girls’ access to a valuable education and limit female potential to contribute fully to their communities.
Kenyan Naisiae Tobiko is a first-hand witness to this unjust situation. While she attended school, she noticed the consistent absences of girls from poorer families every month. She learned that the girls could not attend school a few days each month because their families could not afford sanitary napkins.2 Expensive international brands of pads and tampons comprise an inaccessible market of sanitary products the average person cannot afford. Females who cannot afford these products are forced to resort to subpar, unsanitary methods instead, such as using dirty rags or bark.3
Cases like the story of Shahana persist because local communities are reluctant to address issues regarding menstrual health. Monthly menstrual cycles are stigmatized in many communities worldwide, oftentimes associated with cultural and religious taboos concerning blood. In parts of central Uganda, some people consider menstruation a taboo topic and rarely discuss ways to improve hygienic practices. In Bangladesh, there is a belief that menstrual blood is “the greatest of all pollution.” Another cultural taboo exists in Sierra Leone, where some believe that using sanitary napkins may cause infertility.4
Discussion of menstruation-related issues at the local level is minimal, and communities are able to avoid initiating efforts towards addressing this consistently overlooked aspect of women’s health. This issue also remains unaddressed at the global level as well; governments and non-governmental organizations alike have dedicated minimal time and effort to making sanitation products affordable and sustainable.4 This ill-fated deficit of education regarding hygienic menstrual practices, as well as the lack of funding toward constructing hygienic facilities, has far-reaching, detrimental impacts.
Not only has this unfortunate situation resulted in harmful health effects for females, but it has also spurred negative socioeconomic effects in local communities. Women must manage 3,000 days of menstruation in their lifetime, and 450 of those days coincide with the years of basic schooling.1 Each year, millions of girls and women do not attend fifty days of school or work because of their periods; many of them drop out of school or the workforce entirely.3 Education is key to solving many global issues such as gender-related injustices and economic inequalities. A report released by Goldman Sachs Economic Research states, “There may be no better investment for the health and development of poor countries around the world than investments to educate girls.”5 Educated women are more likely to participate in the workforce, and there is a link between high education levels and low fertility rates. Statistics prove that female education correlates with higher national economic productivity and higher returns to investment.5
Fortunately, some people have recognized the importance of keeping girls and women healthy and in school. Social entrepreneurs are using their compassion, innovation, and resolve to pioneer solutions to menstrual health issues, creating organizations such as Forum of African Women Educationalists (FAWE), Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), and Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE). FAWE in Uganda encourages open dialogue about menstruation and related hygiene via locally run discussion workshops, which has led to an increased distribution of sanitary napkins. FAWE is currently fighting for legislation in Uganda to supply sanitary napkins to female students without charge. BRAC is working on a project to produce sanitary napkins locally, which keeps the products accessible and affordable.5 SHE’s market-based approach strives for sustainability, because as their website states, “Donations don’t work long-term.” SHE’s mission is to empower women to be vehicles of social change in their own communities. SHE provides education, training, and resources to women in developing countries to support entrepreneurship in producing and distributing affordable, eco-friendly, locally-produced sanitary pads.3
These initiatives, among others, provide hope that new and continuing efforts will address menstruation-related hygiene and health. Permitting women to suffer preventable burdens of their menstrual periods is unjust and has far-reaching implications socially and economically. The success of organizations such as FAWE, BRAC, and SHE are keeping girls in school, allowing them access to education and future opportunities. Education is a crucial vehicle to harness the untapped potential in girls and women worldwide so they can contribute socially and economically to their local communities. Women’s health, specifically menstrual health, is something that should no longer be overlooked. Period.
1Ahmed, Rokeya and Nahar, Qumrun. “Addressing special needs of girls challenges in school.” September 2006. South Asian Conference on Sanitation. 28 Apr. 2010 <http://www.wateraid.org/documents/plugin_documents/addressing_the_special_needs_of_girls.pdf>//2Friedman, Thomas. “Cellphones, Maxi-Pads and Other Life-Changing Tools.” 6 Apr. 2007. The New York Times. 28 Apr 2010. <http://select.nytimes.com/2007/04/06/opinion/06friedman.html?_r=3>//3“Sustainable Health Enterprises”. April 28, 2010 <http://www.sheinnovates.com/>.//4Ten, Dr. Varina Tjon A. “Menstrual Hygiene: A Neglected Condition for the Achievement of Several Millennium Development Goal.” 10 Oct. 2007. Europe External Policy Advisors. 28 Apr. 2010 <http://www.eepa.be/wcm/component/option,com_remository/func,fileinfo/id,26/>//5Lawson, Sandra. “Women Hold Up Half the Sky.” 4 Mar. 2010. Goldman Sachs Economic Research. 28 Apr. 2010. <http://www2.goldmansachs.com/ideas/demographic-change/women-hold-up-half-of-the-sky.pdf>