Every woman remembers her first period—-where and when it happened, who, if anyone, she told, even what she was wearing. And yet, despite vivid memories of this momentous occasion, almost no one talks about it. Why? Because first periods are an awkward subject.
The taboo of menstruation is embedded in our religions, culture, and history. In ancient Rome, the philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote that contact with menstrual blood “turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees falls off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled…”
Today, Pliny seems ridiculous, but discrimination and ignorance remain. The problems go well beyond being told to sit out during gym. In Pakistan, eighty-seven percent of girls haven’t heard about menstruation prior to their first period. Indian women are exiled from their own homes. And then there are the various African tribes who mark a girl’s first period as the date for genital mutilation. We need to change these perceptions and practices now.
Despite the fact that half the world menstruates, most people overlook the serious economic repercussions of a worldwide lack of sanitary supplies. The reason? Most people don’t know that it is a problem. Others find the subject embarrassing. Even those who do understand often think there are more pressing problems at hand. Why spend money on pads when AIDS remains to be solved, when countries desperately need infrastructure? Because it turns out that providing pads does much more than prevent leaks.
In developing countries, the lost human capital due to menstruation is significant. According to UNICEF, ten percent of school-age African girls miss school because of a lack of access to sanitary products. In Rwanda, it’s much worse. According to a new study by Sustainable Health Enterprises, 36% of Rwandan girls who miss school, do so because sanitary pads are too expensive. For women, 24% miss work—up to 45 days per year—for the same reason. This limits girls educational and women’s professional achievement, and leads to a collective economic loss for nations. With a simple solution, we can change the standing of women across a continent.