For many girls around the world, menstrual health and hygiene issues are obstacles to education. In some places, girls stay home from school during their periods. In others, menstruating women are considered unclean. Though the problems are urgent for women and girls, there's no simple "fix." Here are five things I've learned.
1. Providing women with pads is not the answer to improving menstrual health.
The average American woman will use more than 12,000 pads and tampons in her lifetime, creating over 250 pounds of waste. In India, if every woman of reproductive age started using disposable sanitary napkins, an estimated 58,500 MILLION pads would be generated each year. Using traditional cloth methods, menstrual cups, washable cloth pads and even period-proof underwear can help reduce environmental impact.
2. When disaster strikes, menstrual health gets neglected.
In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, women in displacement camps suffered from vaginal infections due to lack of clean toilets, privacy, and sanitary napkins. When the earthquake hit Nepal this April, aid organizations came with food and shelter, but initially failed to provide sanitary pads. In the crowded camps, women have little privacy to manage their periods and have resorted to reusing disposable pads, which can cause infections and increase the risk of infertility. LOOM, a Nepali women’s rights advocacy group, is working to distribute feminine health products.
3. Education is essential to improving menstrual health and breaking the silence.
One study found that nearly 50 percent of adolescent girls in southern India do not know that menstruation is related to pregnancy. Similarly, in the US, even though the menstrual cup has been around since the 1930s, few women know about this option. Menstrupedia is an online source for girls that uses colorful comics to provide menstruation education. This spring, a group of women rode their bicycles thousands of miles across the U.S., sharing information about sustainable menstrual products along the way.
4. In many cultures, menstruating women stay in huts away from the home, ostensibly because they are dirty and impure.
However, there’s evidence that in some cases, these practices arose to protect and honor women. In southwestern India, the sheep-herding Golla community lives in small multi-family homes along with their animals. They built menstrual huts to protect pregnant and menstruating women from the diseases sheep carry and to give them privacy.
5. Menstrual health is an important component to achieving gender equality.
In Uganda, 50 percent of girls miss school during their periods because of poor toilet facilities, limited access to sanitary pads and the belief that period pain is a sign of illness. Irise International is delivering education and sanitary pads to make sure that periods do not get in the way of a girl’s right to education.
Sources: International Business Times, Irise International, Eco Femme, GladRags, Jezebel, International Journal of Collaborative Research on Internal Medicine & Public Health, Sustainable Cycles