If you think periods are merely a monthly nuisance, think again. In many countries, the way we treat young girls and talk about menstruation has serious consequences. If we start to respect the period – the girls and women having them – we can change the world.
Frequently, young women in lower-income communities are not given anything close to adequate supplies for handling the arrival of their menses. Worse still, they’re made to feel shame over a natural process that is a sign of good health and fertility. The Guardian writes that in Kenya, a country considered a global leader on access to sanitary products, 65% of women and girls still do not have the means to afford sanitary pads. Inside Philanthropy notes that a single package of pads can cost as much as half a day’s wages for impoverished families. And it’s not just a problem in the developing world. As The Guardian reported last spring, poor girls in England also are struggling to buy menstrual supplies and are missing school as a result.
Without proper resources, many girls must leave school for up to 5 days each month because of their periods — and many drop out of school completely once they begin menstruating. This, of course, puts girls at a sharp disadvantage compared to boys. As Hayley Smith, founder of Flow Aid, told The Guardian, “It’s absolutely despicable in the 21st century that girls are being forced to compromise their education simply because an absolute necessity is unavailable and not affordable.”
Even worse: This gap often evolves over time into a glaring economic inequality between men and women. In short, by mismanaging how girls handle periods at a young age, we are setting young women up for a lifetime of disempowerment. Sue-Lynn Moses summed it up in Inside Philanthropy: “Menstrual hygiene management is far more than a personal issue; it has implications for developing a nation’s human capital.”
The difficulties are not just economic. Within certain communities, places and people that are commonly associated with safety can become threats as a young girl approaches puberty. A walk home from school, a male teacher, even a family member or classmate can suddenly turn the world of a teenage girl into a terrifying place.
Organizations like International Medical Outreach (IMO) and ZanaAfrica are developing solutions to make sanitary products more widely available. The Kenyan government worked with ZanaAfrica in 2011 to finance the distribution of free pads to young women, and earlier in 2017 IMO began a pilot version of a female hygiene packet that covered all the basics of managing menstrual hygiene.
Girls also need space of their own where they can be heard, feel safe, connect with each other and have access to supplies. Safety is non-negotiable. WomenStrong International works with organizations around the world to create spaces like this. Our Girls’ Clubs are based on a simple model that has enormous impact on a complex of factors that must be addressed to keep girls in school. By bringing groups of girls together on a regular basis with mentors and badly-needed resources, we’re teaching young women to feel confident, informed and supported. Empowered.
Our Girls’ Clubs have already created powerful positive change. In Ghana, our Girls’ Clubs are the work of Women’s Health to Wealth that holds Adolescent Reproductive Health Forums for hundreds of girls who can connect in a safe, private space to receive essential information about puberty and menstruation, as well as supplies, when possible. Our work through our Consortium member in Kenya, the Alice Visionary Foundation Project (AVFP), brings boys, mothers, teachers and health workers into the conversation through a comprehensive training that replaces stigma with celebration and uncomfortable laughter with understanding. AVFP also runs school-based clubs where girls between the ages of 8 and 16 can meet weekly to learn from each other’s experiences, discuss common interests and discover new ideas or skills.
By helping young women connect with and empower each other, we are establishing a foundation upon which girls can build a life and lift themselves and their communities out of poverty. The World Bank’s 2011 report on the economic gain of investing in girls, noted that each additional year in school can increase a woman’s lifetime earnings by up to 25%, and when the percentage of women with secondary education increases by 1%, annual per capita economic growth increases by 0.3%. Education removes stigma, and makes girls powerful. Period.
You can help us continue to make significant change in the lives of young girls around the world. To understand the impact of your donation, and to discover more information about the work of WomenStrong International and our global Consortium in “Empowering the Period,” visit our campaign landing page. You can also help by downloading — and sharing — our infographic with the hashtag #PeriodProblems.