For most adolescents in the United States, menstruation is a nuisance. It is an inconvenience replete with limitless possibilities for embarrassment: "Did anyone see me slip a tampon in my pocket?" "Is it obvious I'm wearing a pad?" "What if I bleed through it?" For your average navel-gazing teen girl, having a period is clearly the worst thing ever.
What isn't immediately self-evident, however, is the significance behind this mortification: privilege. We take for granted the ability to discreetly pocket sanitary napkins or tampons, and to use and dispose of them without much thought (self-consciousness notwithstanding). While we're trying to perfect the art of fishing a tampon out of a backpack unnoticed, there are millions of girls around the world who don't have access to pads. And that's not even the worst of it: Because of a lack of sanitation and resources, many girls miss large swaths of school or drop out altogether once they start menstruating.
Consider the situation of schoolgirls in Uganda, for example. According to allafrica.com, research from Build Africa indicates that 30 percent of girls leave school for lack of sanitary pads. Girls opt for home in lieu of school, where they report being teased if they soil their dresses, feeling stigmatized and bullied when using latrines, which are neither gender-segregated nor private.
The Two Feet Project underscores just how detrimental this is to girls' education:
A girl absent from school for four days in 28 days (month) loses 13 learning days equivalent to two weeks of learning in every school term. In an academic year (nine months) a girl loses 39 learning days equivalent to six weeks of learning time. A girl in primary school between grades 6 and 8 (three years) loses 18 learning weeks out of 108 weeks. Within the four years of high school a girl can lose 156 learning days equivalent to almost 24 weeks out of 144 weeks of learning in high school.
Unfortunately, girls' situations at home aren't necessarily better. Embarrassment lurks here, too, and girls are often pressured into keeping their menstrual rags hidden from sight, hiding them in dark places and reusing them before they've been properly washed or dried. The result? Bacteria and hygiene-related illnesses that may cause serious reproductive health issues.
The bottom line: while it may seem farfetched to some, menstruation literally marks a decline in the quality of life for many girls. Without access to menstrual supplies and sanitation, girls' health and educational opportunities are marginalized, the long-term consequences of which create a ripple effect among their communities and, collectively, the global economy.
What can you do? Consider donating to the Kasiisi Project Girls Support Program, which helps keep girls in schools by providing sanitary pads and constructing girls-only latrines in schools. After all, if you educate a girl, you educate the world.
Follow Maureen Shaw on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MaureenShaw