It’s no secret that menstruation is a globally taboo topic. Even “forward-thinking” Western countries continue to tiptoe around the subject, marketing discreet feminine hygiene products and attributing emotional reactions to “that time of the month.” While circumstances in the first world are far better than those in developing nations, these behaviors reinforce the same gender-based stereotypes and inequality that women in the third world face regularly.

In these places, women’s needs are often secondary to those of their family or husband. The Working Group on Girls (WGG) states that fewer than half of girls in developing nations attended secondary school in 2011. This low number can be attributed to a number of causes. In areas of conflict, it’s often safer for women to stay at home. Additionally, their help in the home is valued more than their education.

Poverty directly affects a girl’s ability to attend school or venture out in public in general. Food, school uniforms, transportation and other supplies are purchased before sanitary pads are considered. Even if a girl ordinarily attends school, without proper hygiene products, she is forced to stay home during her period.

Project Inspire conducted interviews with women in India, hoping to gain greater understanding of the stigma associated with menstruation. The interviews revealed that “limited economic resources and cultural taboos about menstruation have been the greatest barriers to getting access to sanitary napkins.” Many women have resorted to making makeshift pads out of old clothing and fabric, though UNICEF points out that this could be unhygienic and dangerous.

The Project Inspire interviews also exposed that access to sanitary napkins gave girls more than just health benefits. One teenager said that the ability to use sanitary napkins would give her more comfort and confidence to attend school and, furthermore, succeed. Parents and family members, however, still have trouble grasping the value of buying feminine hygiene products over other valuable things for the family.

The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) proposes many solutions to make women more comfortable with their bodies, despite the deeply rooted stigma regarding menstruation. First and foremost, says the WSSCC, “Fostering understanding that menstruation is a fact of life.” The biology of a woman’s body will not change because of prejudices. The WSSCC says that having women talk openly about their experiences would encourage a healthier, more positive environment.

On a more practical note, the WSSCC says that prioritizing safe spaces for women to clean themselves is paramount. Additionally, having clean hygiene materials would promote the confidence and health of women. Disposal of such materials should also be considered for the safety of the community and environment.

Often women are both embarrassed by menstruation and unable to afford hygiene products. Over the past few years, Arunachalam Muruganantham, an Indian man, has been developing the first machine to make low-cost sanitary pads for the women of rural India. His invention has also created jobs for women, and allows them to make their own sanitary napkins. This has not only provided women with a valuable necessity, but also empowers them to regain control over their bodies.

– Bridget Tobin 

Sources: Project Inspire, Working Group on Girls, WSSCC, BBC
Photo: Healthy People