At school one morning, a 12-year-old girl in the Philippines noticed a blood stain on her skirt. It was from her period.
The mark was embarrassing. And in order to clean it, the girl had to wait in a long line for access to one of the school’s few working bathrooms. A group of boys mocked her; even once she reached a sink there was barely enough water to clean the stain.
The girl couldn’t take the teasing so she left school. The next day, she wore several pairs of underwear and a pad to protect herself. Still, she was ridiculed and left school feeling ashamed.
A student from Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, DC, told this story on behalf of her Filipino pen pal at Voices of Why Menstruation Matters, an event hosted by the D.C. Coalition for Menstrual Hygiene Day. Unfortunately, this story is all too common in the developing world. Each month, girls around the world skip school while on their period because they don’t have access to working bathrooms or sanitary products. This holds girls back in school and from excelling within their communities.
On May 28, international Menstrual Hygiene Day through open dialogue and honest anecdotes. By sharing these narratives, organizers aim to ease the stigma associated with talking about women’s health in the United States and around the world. The call to action for this year’s Menstrual Hygiene Day was: end the hesitation towards menstruation. The event addressed development issues concerning education, infrastructure, sustainability, access to sanitary products, and social taboos.
An Environmental Nightmare
The average North American woman uses more than 11,000 tampons and sanitary pads over the course of her lifetime. Once thrown away, it is estimated that a sanitary pad takes between 500 and 800 years to break down in the environment. In most of the world where there is no trash collection, these items end up on the side of the road, in water sources, or are burned along with the rest of the trash, which releases harsh chemicals into the air.
Another problem for women around the globe is the affordability of sanitary products – the average woman in the U.S. spends around $120 per year on sanitary products. In most of the world, these products are nearly unaffordable, driving women to use rags, dirt, rocks, dried cow dung, herbs, plants, or cotton in place of sanitary napkins or tampons. According to WASH United, 88 percent of women in India use reusable cloths or sand during their menstrual cycles. Many are too embarrassed to lay these cloths out in the sun – an easy, and free way to disinfect them. Around 70 percent of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.
Innovative Product Solutions
Several companies have created cost-effective, safe-to-use, and environmentally friendly alternatives to disposable sanitary products. These products are better for one’s health (fewer chemicals and plastics), finances, and the environment.
For example, Jasmin Jenkins from Thinx, has created underwear that women can wear in lieu of a sanitary napkin. These can be washed and reused again and again. What’s more, Thinx has partnered with AFRIpads, a Ugandan social enterprise that trains women to sew and sell this product. Each time a pack of Thinx underwear is sold, Thinx sends funds to AFRIpads to support their business mission.
Other companies like Impact Africa Industries, Lunapads, and New Moon Pads are also creating reusable, washable cotton pads that are accessible in a variety of emerging markets around the world. And menstrual cups, such as the DivaCup, can last for years.
Access to products is not the only restraint for girls during their menstrual cycles, access to proper infrastructure, specifically clean, working bathrooms at schools is critical. In the developing world, where 2.5 billion people still live without access to basic sanitation, this remains a major obstacle.
In three villages in Rajasthan, India, the Joint Initiative for Village Advancement (JIVA), an integrated community development project funded by the John Deere Foundation and managed by PYXERA Global, prioritized this issue. After a participatory needs assessment with local stakeholders, it became clear that the local community both needed and wanted new bathrooms at the government schools. Without this open-ended and inclusive needs assessment, where the community had the opportunity to not only identify problems but also propose solutions, community empowerment and thus adoption would not have been as successful. With the construction of the new bathrooms, in conjunction with other education, agriculture, and infrastructure initiatives, 75 percent of girl dropouts are now reintegrated into the schools.
Innovative partnerships, products, and solutions like those highlighted at Voices of Why Menstruation Matters are changing the way the world thinks about women’s health. Still, encouraging open discussion around menstruation remains a global issue critical to keeping women and girls around the world in school, free of shame, and healthy.
Interested in learning more? Visit http://menstrualhygieneday.org/.
Sarah Ferst is the Program Coordinator for MBAs Without Borders at PYXERA Global. Prior to working for PYXERA Global, Sarah interned for Friendship Bridge (Puente de Amistad), a micro finance institution in Guatemala. Sarah has lived throughout Latin America and holds a BA in International Development and Latin American Studies from the George Washington University.