For about a week every month, most women experience and manage menstruation. However, for some women and girls around the world, their periods bring a greater burden. In a number of African countries, for example, the necessary sanitary products are too expensive or hard to come by. African women are therefore responsible with coming up with more creative ways to control their healthy bodies, such as using rags, cloths, or even leaves. In most cases, however, girls and young women are forced to stay home during their periods and miss school, which accounts for nearly 24 out of 144 weeks of learning during all four years of high school. This loss is significant enough to cause many women to struggle in school at best and drop out at worst. Fewer educated women causes another major issue: the continuity of poverty. As The World Bank states, “more educated women tend to be healthier, participate more in the formal labor market, earn more income, have fewer children, and provide better healthcare and education to their children”.
Dr. Wall, a medical doctor and anthropologist at Wash U who specializes in the intersection of culture with obstetrics and gynecology, explains, “Much of the inequality in the way males and females are treated around the world lies in basic human biology: women get pregnant and have babies, and men do not. Women menstruate, men do not. The burden of reproductive morbidity and mortality is born by women, and, for almost all of human history, women have had minimal choice as to when they got pregnant, how many times they got pregnant, and (unfortunately) with whom they created a pregnancy.” Wall also explains that the technologies and innovations needed to help women with these avoidable problems exist, but they are not easily accessed by women in developing nations. Granting women access to proper sanitary care thus becomes a human rights problem.
There is currently a lot of talk about how to go about fixing this issue, and organizations that are aimed to help women in developing nations are becoming increasingly more prevalent. The question is however, what is the best way to help? Dr. Wall works with a nonprofit called Dignity Period, which acts in partnership with the Mariam Seba Sanitary Products Factory and Mekelle University in Ethiopia to give out sanitary products to adolescent girls in Ethiopia. Dr. Wall explains that one of the best parts about this organization is that it is a grassroots cause that started out of the personal experience of an Ethiopian women named Freweini Mebrahtu, who now provides 50 local women with living wages, health care, and a daycare facility for their children while they are working. Mebrahtu’s factory works by producing reusable cloth pads and underwear (since many Ethiopian girls do not even have underwear to wear pads with) that can last up to 18 months and cost $3.75. Dignity Period also aims to provide menstrual pads to all 12,000 women at Mekelle University by the fall, which will cost nearly $50,000.
Dignity Period, as well as other community-based organizations, are making huge impacts in their local communities by not only keeping girls in school, but also providing to the local economy by creating jobs. When asked about the importance of recognizing and supporting these kinds of charities, Dr Wall states, “The most important thing is to understand the organization you are supporting, what they do, how they work, and why they do what they do the way that they do it. Personally, I like to support local organizations like this one that clearly have developed out a self-identified, grassroots need.”
Dignity Period and other organizations of its kind are revolutionary. They do not only provide a basic female necessity, but also change the way that we handle long-held stigmas and cultural norms. For many years, women have not been able to openly discuss the natural phenomenon of menstruation, but have had to creatively problem-solve for something that should not be a problem in the first place. These organizations show women that it is possible to live completely normal lives unimpeded by their periods and fight against the idea that menstruation is an unspeakable occurrence. Dignity Period also provides young girls with the opportunity to change both their own lives (through proper education) and their entire communities (through improving the workforce and economy). No matter how the problem of access to menstrual products may be tackled, it is important to recognize its significance around the world, even if it does not affect the average American woman directly.