My periods started when I was around 12. It felt messy, dirty, complicated. I didn't like it -- but, as most of us who are born biologically female, I dealt with it. For me, menstruation was a necessary evil -- but nothing I couldn't handle. It was certainly not something that had the power or potential to entirely alter the course of my life and future.
But for millions of girls across the developing countries, the story is very different. For them, the start of menstruation can mean the end of education, and therefore, the end of any real future prospects of economic independence, earning potential and financial security. In most developing countries, girls have little if any access to reliable information and education about their bodies, including menstruation, and many myths and taboos exist around menstruation and its meaning. For example, in India and Nepal, girls and women are often banished outside of their villages and communities during their menstruation because they are seen as "impure" or "dirty." In Ghana women aren't allowed to enter a dwelling with a man or cook him food while on her period, and in Islamic countries menstruating women are not allowed to touch the Quran or pray.
A major reason behind girls missing school or dropping out entirely because of menstruation is lack of access to proper information and sanitary pads. According to East Africa-based organization Femme International, menstruation is the number one reason why girls miss school in East Africa. Co-founder and Executive Director Sabrina Rubli notes that the biggest challenge regarding menstruation in Tanzania, where Femme International works, is the lack of health information available to young girls. Rubli notes that If girls don't understand what is going on with their bodies, they aren't able to make the informed decisions about their personal health and hygiene. Additionally, Because girls don't have access to proper pads, they use things like newspaper, dirty rags and cloth and plant leaves, which is unhygienic, can easily lead to infections and other health problems, and also often involves shame and embarrassment because of stains and leaking. Girls also lack access to safe, private and clean toilet facilities and running water in schools, which means keeping themselves clean and changing their "pads" during the school day can be near impossible. They face ridicule and verbal abuse from male peers and even teachers during their menstruation, leading to stigma and marginalization. The stigma and shame associated with menstrual blood isn't confined to developing countries -- we have our share of it in the Western world too, but at least we don't have to drop out of school because of it.
Providing girls and women with information about menstruation and their bodies, and ensuring they have access to pads, proper toilet facilities and water, isn't just about hygiene and health -- it's about agency, empowerment and rights. When girls have the ability to take control over their bodies, understand what is happening to them and why, and handle their menstruation in a proper manner, they are not only taking control over their menstruation but their lives. Education and information needs to also extend to boys and men, as well as family members, teachers and other key people in the lives of girls, so that harmful myths and taboos and the stigma associated with menstruation can be dispelled. This work is something that needs to extend beyond developing countries and reach our western societies as well, where tampons and pads are still taxed as "luxury items" and images depicting menstrual blood censored from social media as somehow shameful or offensive. When Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon on her period without wearing a tampon or a pad, the Internet went crazy on both sides of the isle -- women from all over the world came to Gandhi's praise, saying she had taken a huge step in the effort to break taboos and shame associated with menstruation, but many didn't agree with her choice and openly criticized her. Gandhi, who spoke at the Women Deliver Conference in Copenhagen just a couple of weeks ago, had this to say:
"If you ask me, stigma is one of the most effective forms of oppression, because it denies us the vocabulary to talk comfortably and confidently about our own lives."
So what can you do? Here, I want to tell a story about a 19-year-old girl who I recently met here in Tanzania. Her name is Naureen, and after having to take a gap year after high school to raise funds for university, Naureen wasted no time to give back to her community and help local girls who didn't have access to sanitary pads. She founded an organization called The Purple Box, which collects donations of sanitary pads and delivers them to two local schools to girls coming from low income families. Naureen placed boxes covered with purple cloth (purple because it's the color of royalty and depicts empowerment, said Naureen) in a few grocery stores in Arusha, Tanzania, where shoppers can buy an extra pack or two of pads while doing their grocery shopping and place it in the donation box. Naureen then collects the donations and delivers them to the schools, where over 200 girls are now receiving pads through The Purple Box. Naureen handles everything on her own, and hopes to be able to expand the reach of her organization and eventually add an educational component to the work as well. Teachers have already reported a decline in school absence of girls, and Naureen has no plans to slow down. At the age of 19, she is changing the lives of hundreds of girls -- through sanitary pads. She is a great example of the impact that one person's actions can have on the well-being of many others.
Sabrina Rubli from Femme International also reminds us that the menstrual stigma needs to be broken in Canada and Finland just as much as it needs to be broken in Tanzania. According to Rubli, we all need to start talking about menstruation without any embarrassment to break down this taboo, once and for all. Learn about the work that is being done by many amazing organizations in this field, find ways to get involved, donate your time or if you can, money - and most importantly, shed the shame associated with menstruation and embrace it with pride. It really is the Cycle of Life.