Adolescent girls in developing countries miss schools for at least five days every month -- 60 days in a year during their menstrual cycle due to the lack of access to sanitary napkins and unhygienic conditions at schools. Many of them fall behind in their classes. This also leads to an increase in the dropout rate of middle and high school girls. Similarly, sanitary napkins are expensive to purchase and not easily available everywhere. In addition to that, disposal method is another problem as the generic pads are not recyclable. Most girls after reaching puberty prefer to stay home because rural schools do not provide clean water supplies and proper bathrooms. Therefore, girls fall behind in education which makes it harder for the society to achieve gender equality.
In developing and underdeveloped areas, the use of rags and cloths as an alternative to pads is a common practice. When the cloth is usually cleaned in between uses, it is not hygienic. The chances of contracting urinary or vaginal infections are also increased greatly.
This past winter, I received some letters from girls who are in Manya Krobo, Ghana. The letters made it clear that the girls didn't have access to sanitary napkins and weren't going to school during their period. I am starting promise of a pad initiative to help these girls get reusable sanitary napkins so that they won't have to miss school. One girl who lived with her grand mother expressed her concern of not having anyone to talk to about the premenstrual syndrome and sanitary napkins.
Talking about menstrual cycle is also seen as a taboo in Nepal as well as in other parts of the world. No one talks about it openly as it is considered to be shameful. This is the main reason why little progress has been made even though numerous organizations have been working on the problem for decades.
Periods are also seen as a burden for the family. In Nepal, menstruating women and girls are considered untouchables and impure. They cannot attend religious functions, go to the temple or participate in household chores such as entering the kitchen. At this time, women typically have to sleep in a separate room while maintaining physical distance from family members. People believe that she will bring bad luck and make the gods angry.
Women are bounded by cultural traditions that pose restrictions on what they should do in their own homes and seen as a sign of weakness. Growing up in Nepal, I myself was always bounded with these traditions. I wasn't allowed to go inside the kitchen and the prayer room.
Moreover, in Jumla and in other places in Nepal, women and girls have to sleep outside their homes, often in the cow shed or a hut. This tradition of Chhaupadi is still prevalent in rural areas. Animal attack, snake bites, hypothermia in winter and asphyxiation from fires that are made in the huts often cause deaths when women sleep alone away from their homes and family. Being an untouchable is not only practiced in the villages but also in the capital city of Nepal.
We will not achieve gender equality in education until young girls are able to attend school during their periods. Many women and girls who face discrimination in their homes because of their periods don't even know that there are many countries advocating for them. Achieving gender equality will always going be a struggle when women will not be able to go to work everyday and make equal financial contributions to her family as men do.
To achieve gender equality, we also need to include men in the conversation. We need to teach young boys and men about the science behind menstrual cycle and advice them to be open-minded about changing traditions that serve no other purpose than gender discrimination. A hashtag or a rally will raise awareness about the issues in developing countries but will not directly send a girl to school or stop discrimination. A firmer action is needed in the communities where the actual discrimination takes place and make an actual impact.