When a Period Ends More Than A Sentence

Despite the fact that half the world menstruates, most people overlook the serious repercussions of a lack of affordable sanitary supplies in developing countries.
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Thatcher Mweu is a high school sophomore at Choate Rosemary Hall, a prestigious New England boarding school. Two years ago, she was living in a rural Kenyan village. Introducing the new class of 2011, Choate's headmaster told the school of its deepening diversity--there was a girl who had never been in an elevator before. What he didn't know is that Thatcher had never seen a tampon before, either.

Despite the fact that half the world menstruates, most people overlook the serious repercussions of a lack of affordable sanitary supplies in developing countries. The reason? Most people don't know that it is a problem. Others find the subject embarrassing. Even those who do understand think there are more pressing problems at hand. Why spend money on pads when AIDS remains to be solved, when countries desperately need infrastructure, when the economy is collapsing? Because it turns out that providing pads does much more than prevent embarrassing stains. It is a simple solution that can change the standing of a gender, and thus an economy, across a continent.

In the US, sanitary pads first became widespread in 1921, tampons in 1936. As a result girls and women had the opportunity to fully participate in school, sports, and the workforce. These products equaled freedom. And this is why many women say tampons are one of the greatest inventions of all time. They effectively reduced the inconvenience, opportunity cost, and stigma of menstruation.

But in developing countries, periods continue to be a serious handicap. According to UNICEF, ten percent of school-age African girls miss school because of a lack of access to affordable sanitary products. In Rwanda, it's much worse. According to on-the-ground research by Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), half the girls are missing school due to menstruation and the main reason given is that sanitary pads are too expensive. For women, 24% miss work--up to 45 days per year--for the same reason. This not only limits girls' educational and women's professional achievement, but leads to a significant economic loss for nations. SHE estimates that a lack of affordable sanitary pads reduces GDP by $115 million per year in Rwanda alone.

There are also serious health repercussions of not having pads. In Asia, many women still use rags; less fortunate ones use newspapers, banana leaves, even sand or ash. While rags were common before the pad was invented, the problem in developing countries is that often women don't have access to clean water to wash them. And the taboo of menstruation means that many women cannot hang their rags to dry in the open. So, instead, they hide them in dark, damp places where no one will find them. As one might imagine, infections are rampant.

The first step is to destigmatize menstruation. Bringing periods into the open won't be easy. The taboo of menstruation is embedded in our religions, culture, and history. The Quran declares that menstruating women "are a hurt and a pollution." Indian women are exiled from their own homes. Orthodox Jewish women are forbidden to have sex. French housewives can't make mayonnaise. In ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote that contact with menstrual blood "turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, ..., the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled." Today, Pliny seems ridiculous, but discrimination and ignorance remain.

To change attitudes means breaking the silence. Our hope is that this article will help start a dialogue with the women and men around you. Almost every woman remembers her first period--where and when it happened, who, if anyone, she told, and even what she was wearing. Girls should know the stories of the women in their family. Sharing these stories will help mothers and daughters (and dads, too) talk more openly about this natural process.

Equally important is to change the economy of menstruation. Sanitary pads should be affordable and safe. This is an investment not only in women, but economies.

Thirty years ago, Gloria Steinem published one of her most famous essays, If Men Could Menstruate. There would be no taboos. Men would brag about how long and how much. And sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. It's time we do a better job helping our sisters around the world. P&G is contributing $5 million over five years to provide sanity supplies in Africa. SHE is jump-starting local businesses to produce affordable sanitary supplies around the globe. Individually, we can all help end the taboo by talking. These are the ways to truly celebrate International Women's Day.

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