03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When Menstruation Means Inequality

Menstruating is a universal annoyance. Sometimes accompanied with cramps-- and other times with tears at Puppy Chow commercials-- we get through our "time of the month" with Midol, tampons, and tissues. We manage to proceed with our usual routine. In fact, there's not much talk about periods beyond the middle-school "health" talk, followed by a wave of prepubescent snickering and the dismantling of sample tampons.

But for millions of girls and women in the developing world, menstruation is a nightmare. With a dearth of feminine product options, women turn to rags, mud, and even tree bark to physically conceal the situation. Girls in Rwanda miss up to 50 days of school or work per year, which translates to five lost years of productivity over a lifetime. Research conducted by the Forum of African Women Educationalists (FAWE) revealed that this issue is responsible for school drop-out rates.

Elizabeth Scharpf, founder of SHE, is out to find a solution. "In some of these areas of Africa, a month's supply of imported sanitary pads cost more than a day's worth of wages. The donations they receive from individuals help, but they simply are not a long-term solution to the problem," says Scharpf. "Our goal is to create affordable pads that are able to be easily manufactured for a low cost at the local level."

SHE, which stands for Sustainable Health Enterprises, is beginning to train women in Rwanda on how to make and distribute sanitary pads. Their focus is on using local raw materials to ensure affordability, accessibility, and sustainability. They are building a hyper-local, yet scalable, model with hopes of expanding to Southeast Asia, Central America, and India.

Menstruating is annoying. But the ostracization of women for a natural occurrence is a sure threat to the realization of global gender equality. All women have the right to health and dignity. Period.