Through our work in rural Ethiopia, we’ve learned that many people, in the US and elsewhere, are not aware of the challenges faced by menstruating women and girls worldwide. So, we’ve decided to distill some of our knowledge about this problem into the key issues around menstrual hygiene management.
1. Menstruation is heavily stigmatized. This stems from lack of awareness and education about the basics of menstruation. For example, due to the widely held belief in parts of India that menstruation makes women “impure,” women and girls on their periods are not allowed to take on household tasks like cooking, nor are they allowed to be in public spaces or sometimes, even in their own homes. In the most extreme examples, women and girls on their period must wait out the time in isolation, in a hut at the edge of their villages. In rural Nepal, a similar practice occurs, where women are not allowed in their homes for fear that the gods will become angry and put a curse on the home and family leading to illness and problems. This practice is illegal according to Nepali law, but is still practiced in remote areas.
2. Many women and girls do not have access to feminine hygiene products to use when on their periods. This includes places like Southeast Asia and Africa, but also for women in the US who live below the poverty line. The cost of these products is often prohibitive and items like food and other basic needs are prioritized, or sanitary products are simply not available. In fact, the food stamp programs in most US states do not even consider menstrual hygiene products as “essential items”! Many organizations, like Dignity Period, are working to provide these products to females who do not have access to them, but more work needs to be done. Women and girls around the world need more resources and policy changes that allow them to manage menstrual hygiene with dignity.
This lack of products has dire consequences. In urban India, 43% of girls use reusable cloth, yet they are often washed without soap or clean water. A study in Mukuru, Nairobi found that girls ages 10- 19 reported having sex with older men to afford basic needs like sanitary pads. In another study, 73 percent of interviewed Bangladeshi garment workers reported they miss work for an average of six days per month (resulting in unpaid work days) due to vaginal infections caused by unsanitary menstrual materials. This is a loss that few can afford, particularly those who live on less than two dollars a day.
3. Lack of access to menstrual hygiene facilities – like private bathrooms – discriminates against women. In many countries, work places and public places like schools do not have adequate hygiene facilities, or places where women can go to wash themselves or change sanitary products. This leads to fewer women and girls in schools, particularly during their periods, as well as women missing days of work and losing income. This is an economic and social challenge that no country can afford.
The statistics are staggering. According to UNICEF, 83 percent of girls in Burkina Faso and 77 percent in Niger have no place at school to change their sanitary menstrual materials.
4. Many girls are terrified by their first period. Because they lack information, many girls believe they are ill or dying when they first menstruate. Many are so afraid or embarrassed that they have ruined their clothing – often the only dresses or bedding sets that they have – that they do not share this fear and shame, and live with it alone.
5. Not only women: male education about menstrual hygiene is a key piece of the puzzle to changing social stigma around menstruation. In many traditional societies, boys and men in many societies are the main bread winners and decision makers. They need to accurately understand the challenges faced by their female colleagues, friends, and family members. Many studies have shown that men’s knowledge of menstruation is either completely lacking, or ripe with misinformation. This applies in the developing world, but is also a problem in more developed nations like the US. Dignity Period is committed to providing education to all students to lessen the stigma, so it is easier for girls to manage their periods safely and effectively.