Take a moment to think about some simple yet staggering facts. Today, more than 800 million girls and women around the world are menstruating. Cumulatively, over the course of a lifetime, this adds up to an average of six to eight years. No matter where these girls and women are in the world, most of them would agree on one thing: Managing your period is a hassle. But for most girls and women, it’s also a barrier preventing access to basic human rights.
The global context of menstruation is of deep-rooted stigma and inequities. There are serious, persistent gaps in policies, funding, infrastructure, and markets. The unacceptable result is that girls and women lack the knowledge, support systems, facilities and access to affordable products. Even with scant global research on this issue, if women and girls are unable to participate in social, public, or school life, it holds them back from achieving their full potential.
When I found out about this alarming situation, one thing was clear: Periods are a serious challenge that needs more attention and funding. Giving Wings, a family foundation, strives to find innovative, interesting and sustainable programs and companies that disrupt the problematic, scary, and sometimes life-threatening relationship girls and women have with their periods. After four years, some questions still keep us up at night, and if there is a menstrual genie out there, here are our three wishes:
Wish 1: Affordable, available and sustainable period solutions. Why have we not built the necessary markets?
Globally, around 88% of all girls don’t have access to commercial products to manage their periods. Some of the world’s most common products are cloths, newspaper, toilet paper, and leaves. The dominance of global multinational brands means the prices are too high in many parts of the world, and distribution channels continue to be inadequate. Moreover, the market for local products and solutions are seriously underdeveloped, which hampers accessibility and affordability of solutions. There are companies like AFRIpads (http://www.afripads.com) and ZanaAfrica (http://www.zanaafrica.org) breaking new ground in local markets, but how can we make sure that girls and women have access to a choice of products globally?
Wish 2: Empowered and knowledgeable girls and support systems. Why are periods not integrated more into our education systems?
Taboos around periods are globally pervasive, and our education systems reflect it. The lack of attention and time spent discussing what is a critical biological function is baffling. The lack of comprehensive sexual health education, including a focus on periods, is dangerous not just for girls, but boys as well. This is compounded when teachers and parents perpetuate stigma and taboos about periods. In South Asia, a study found that 33% of girls in school had never heard of menstruation prior to experiencing their first period, and 98% of girls were unaware that menstrual blood came from the uterus. In other countries, like Iran, around 50% of girls think it’s a disease. How can we empower women if we don’t give them the knowledge and tools to understand their own bodies?
Wish 3: Increased funding to this long-overseen issue. Why aren’t periods on the agenda when we talk about development?
Today very few funders are focusing on menstruation and menstrual health. This has led to an underfunded sector that no one talks about. Several organizations work on menstrual health through water, sanitation, and hygiene programs or through adolescent sexual and reproductive health. These siloed approaches are ineffective and uncoordinated. Practitioners and funders alike should start addressing, lifting up, and prioritizing menstrual health to ensure women and girls succeed in all aspects of their lives. This means more funding – grants, donations, loans, venture capital or private equity -- into the menstrual health sector, taking periods seriously as an issue that needs to be addressed.
There is a powerful untapped potential of girls and women, if only we would engage in these discussions and address these gaps. Joining a global movement, together with others, we aim to build a sustainable, inclusive world where girls can thrive. One way of doing that is through addressing periods. May 28th is Menstrual Health Day, an opportunity to raise awareness of the challenges women and girls face due to their periods and to collectively find solutions. Our sector is small but growing fast. Join us in the work of empowering women and girls to equal opportunities and rights!
As a member of Maverick Collective, an initiative of PSI, I have decided to focus on menstrual health through PSI Nepal. Maverick Collective members partner on PSI programs to tackle critical challenges faced by women and girls through innovative projects to develop game-changing interventions. Members work with a global community providing proof for solutions that radically impact the lives of girls and women in the most underserved parts of the world.
Find out more at: www.maverickcollective.org and www.psi.org