In India, poor women often have to choose between buying milk and sanitary pads. In Africa, one in 10 adolescent girls misses school while she has her period and eventually drops out. In Iran, 48 percent of girls think menstruation is a disease.
It’s these hardships and taboos that inspired WASH United, an organization devoted to encouraging better hygiene practices and improving sanitation, to launch the first Menstrual Hygiene Day, which is being observed on Wednesday. Together with Save the Children, WaterAid, toilet.hackers and a number of other advocacy partners, the event aims to raise awareness about the challenges impoverished girls face in getting basic menstruation education and products.
Lydia, for example, a 16-year-old living in Kampala, Uganda, hopes to one day become a doctor, she told the Guardian. But the motivated teen fears that she won’t be able to pursue her goal because of the inordinate number of classes she has to miss when she has her period.
Her school has just four latrines for 2,000 students, which the male and female students share. Lydia told the news outlet that she, and her peers, often fear the humiliation they face when they go to the bathroom when they’re menstruating.
"We are sharing the toilets with the boys, and we fear when we go to the toilets [they] will be in there," Lydia told the Guardian. "And so we don't go to school when we have our periods."
Advocates hope that by promoting Menstrual Hygiene Day, the public will learn just how far-reaching this issue is.
"Menstrual hygiene is not merely a women and girls' issue," Nelly Lukale, a community health nurse in Kenya, wrote in a HuffPost blog on the topic. "It's an issue that can impact entire families, societies and countries, because when girls and women thrive, everyone benefits."
It’s an effort that requires widespread awareness and on-the-ground grassroots efforts.
One advocate who is making a difference in the lives of poor women and girls in India is Arunachalam Muruganantham. Back in 1998, Muruganantham was startled when he learned that his wife used dirty cloths when she was menstruating -- cloths so squalid he wouldn’t even use to clean his scooter -- because sanitary pads were too expensive, he told the BBC.
That’s when Muruganantham, despite societal backlash, decided to commit to figuring out how to create a low-cost sanitary pad. After four-and-a-half years, he succeeded and now employs impoverished Indian women in rural areas to help produce the pads.
In addition to making affordable sanitary pads available, Muruganantham also works in schools so that girls can learn how to make effective and low-cost pads on their own.
"Why wait till they are women?" Muruganantham told the BBC. "Why not empower girls?"
To help spread the word, use #MHDay and #MenstruationMatters on social media. Learn other ways you can get involved here.