For many girls in developing countries, getting your period can mean dropping out of school. Offering menstrual education is one way to combat this.

WomenStrong International, coinciding with Menstrual Hygiene Day (MH Day) on May 28th, has begun a campaign to bring menstrual education to girls in Ghana, Kenya, Haiti, and India, aiding them in their ability to stay in school and get the education they deserve. WomenStrong has already seen the positive results of adolescent girls offered a reproductive education, including  menstruation, through the GirlsClubs it has established in some impoverished communities.

“We call on schools, local governments, multilateral institutions, policymakers, and international development organizations to help create a world where menstrual health is a human right and girls can grow up with dignity and joy in their womanhood,” said Dr. Susan M. Blaustein, WomenStrong Founder and Executive Director.

In many countries, menstruation is considered taboo and dirty. Pre- and post-pubescent girls aren’t aware of the how and why of their bodies changing, and can’t discuss it in a healthy way with peers or parents. Some don’t know what the purpose of menstruation is and are completely unaware of it until they have their first period.  Only twelve percent of girls worldwide have access to sanitary products. The remaining 88 percent use odd pieces of cloth, old rags, baby diapers, or whatever they can find to handle menstruation. They’ll even be forced to share stained rags out of necessity. Often, bathroom facilities are not separate for boys and girls, leading the girls to painfully avoid going to the bathroom out of fear that they won’t have privacy or that the bathroom won’t be clean. Some girls will go so far as to skip drinking water throughout the day to avoid having to go to the bathroom. Getting your period with these added impediments can be a humiliating and undignified experience.

In addition to being susceptible to disease from unhygienic facilities and products, girls are introduced to another level of mental stress after menarche. The social stigma of menstruation introduces psychological repercussions in puberty as self-image becomes part of identity. Girls are left to internalize–in silence–the shame they feel at having to deal with their bodies privately. Menstruation is a part of the reproductive process and yet, shockingly, it is completely absent from some reproductive education.

It’s impossible to ignore the link between poor sanitation, lack of menstruation education and products, and low attendance rates of post-pubescent girls in school. While United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) claims only 1 in 10 African girls are absent from school during their period, World Bank studies indicate regular absences occurring for four days every four weeks: the length and occurrence of a period.

Education is critical for an impoverished girl’s empowerment. Girls that stay in school are shown to garner higher wages. They resist the confines of traditional gender roles, staying in school instead of becoming mothers at very young ages, marrying out of necessity or force, are less vulnerable to risks of dying in childbirth or pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV and AIDS.

According to UNICEF, “If all girls had secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would fall by 64 percent, from almost 2.9 million to just over 1 million.”

Women are the driving force in eradicating poverty. They make up seventy percent of those in developing nations living below the poverty line. For every one percent of women with a secondary education, there is a 0.3 percent increase in per capita economic growth. Poverty cannot be eradicated, nor sustainable development initiated, without addressing the obstacles a woman faces on a daily basis. For women to achieve their full potential and end poverty, they need the ability to receive an education. Menses shouldn’t be an obstacle to obtaining this goal.

Dr. Blaustein told Lady Freethinker, “We agree with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan who said, ‘There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition, and promote health’ (cited in UNICEF, 2008). Removing the obstacle of menstruation, which should be celebrated rather than stigmatized, is a key to keeping girls in school.”

Developed to create awareness about women’s right to a safe and hygienic menstruation, MH Day takes place on May 28.  This date was chosen because most women average cycles every twenty-eight days and periods average five days (May is the fifth month of the year). Supporting the basic human right to menstruate safely and hygienically, Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) includes access to washing facilities, disposal options, educational materials, and products such as tampons and pads, privacy and dignity. Considering menstruation is a biological experience for roughly half of the world’s population on a monthly basis, it’s hard to believe that a devoted day is still needed to aid in its acceptance and safe practice.

Menstruation goes beyond the academic part of learning. It occurs while in school and it is the obligation of schools to honor this. Clean water and soap, menstrual hygiene management tools such as pads and disposal options must be made available. Education for teachers and boys, as well as girls, is necessary to change and influence the negative social myths about menstruation. It’s not dirty. It’s not shameful. It’s a natural part of being a girl and a woman. These myths contribute to a sexist gender inequality between girls and boys entering puberty. Sexual awakening is linked to pleasure for a boy, while for girls it’s often not discussed or implies they lack control. Education would do much to contribute to ending these inequitable, backwards ideas.

Awareness would also make MHM something forbidden to discuss. Understanding would more readily lead to providing and funding assistance without stigma. Menstruation is expensive! Menstruation kits can make the difference between a girl staying in school and dropping out. Offering supplies in school and in impoverished communities for free is a worthy government investment. At the very least, these supplies should be made affordable and untaxed. It would benefit us all to consider going green with reusable sanitary kits.

#WomenStrongWarrior is the hashtag being used in the movement to make menstruation education part of a curriculum. Use it freely, along with others like #menstruationmatters. In addition, you can speak up on menstruation to end the silence and save a girl’s life.