Breaking the Cycle: Menstruation, Education, and Empowerment

Menstruation isn't always a walk in the park. Like many of my female peers, I have uncomfortable memories of excusing myself from class to go the nurse's office in high school because of unbearable menstrual cramps. I've thrown out countless pairs of underwear due to unfortunate mishaps with disposable pads and tampons (now that I use a menstrual cup, this is rarely an issue). While I appreciate the quintessential female experience of menstruation, it isn't exactly my idea of fun, and it probably isn't yours either.

With all the negatives surrounding menstruation, it's easy to lose perspective on all the luxuries most of us take for granted with our menstrual management. When we need pads or tampons, we can go to any drugstore and buy a box for a reasonable price. We have the opportunity to consider more economic menstrual alternatives like the menstrual cup and reusable cloth pads. We can find ibuprofen in any convenience store to manage menstrual pain. Most public restrooms have dedicated disposal bins for used menstrual products. Functional toilets are available in our workplaces, schools, and public buildings.

Menstrual management in the developed world has even reached a new height of privilege in recent years. Women may now choose whether they menstruate at all. Hormonal contraceptives allow us to ask the question: "How often do you want to have your period? Monthly? Every three months? Never?" In developed nations, we can opt out of menstruation.

"In Uganda, disposable menstrual pads for one girl cost one tenth of the family's monthly income."But for millions of women around the globe, menstrual hygiene management is a persistent struggle that has serious consequences on quality of life and self-esteem. In Uganda, disposable menstrual pads for one girl cost one tenth of the family's monthly income. This is a 'luxury' most families cannot afford.

In one assessment of menstrual hygiene in Uganda, researchers found that girls regularly use rags, old cloth, pieces of old clothes, cotton wool, toilet paper, or "natural materials" (which included mud, cow dung, or leaves) to manage their menstrual flow. Many girls who re-use old materials get infections due to a lack of facilities to properly clean them. Since these materials are not very absorbent, menstrual fluid leakage is common. Cultural taboos and a lack of education about menstruation means leaks are particularly shameful for girls in Uganda and they may stay home from school out of difficulty managing their periods.

"73.8% of girls in Uganda believe that pain during a period is a sign of illness, 56.8% believe that menstrual blood contains dangerous substances, 48.8% believe it is harmful for a woman to run or dance during her period, and 42.2% of girls believe that menstruation is a disease."Oppressive cultural taboos about menstruation forbid girls from speaking out about these issues. On the rare occasion that menstruation is discussed in schools, the discourse is limited to physiological rather than practical education about menstrual management. Incorrect beliefs about menstruation are widespread. One 2013 study found 73.8% of girls in Uganda believe that pain during a period is a sign of illness, 56.8% believe that menstrual blood contains dangerous substances, 48.8% believe it is harmful for a woman to run or dance during her period, and 42.2% of girls believe that menstruation is a disease.

These taboos and lack of access to menstrual supplies have serious consequences for women. Menstruation is the third most common cause of missed school for girls in Uganda (after lack of funds and illness). Girls miss an average of 1.3 days of school per cycle due to menstruation, which adds up to about two weeks of missed school every term. Lack of menstrual products is the most common reason girls miss school during menstruation.

Women with even a few years of basic education are more likely to work themselves out of poverty. Educated women have smaller, healthier families and are more likely to send their own children to school. Many relief organizations, such as Afripads, are working to provide girls with reusable, affordable menstrual products that increase school attendance. One study of girls in Ghana found that providing education about menstruation and menstrual products allow girls to attend one extra week of school per term. The girls were also able to concentrate better felt less embarrassment about their periods.

Given that about half of the world's population menstruates, menstrual management should be a top priority for improving the lives of women around the globe. Increasing women's access to education increases the chance that they will be able to break the cycle of poverty that stops so many women from having access to menstrual supplies and opportunities to attend school comfortably.

"All women have the right to education and health. No one deserves to have their education put in jeopardy due to a natural bodily process."The issues of menstruation management may not be solved independently without also addressing education, taboos, poverty, and women's position in society, but just one reusable menstrual kit can provide a woman in Uganda with a whole year of comfortable periods and weeks of school attendance. Every kit provides one menstruating woman with the comfort and ease all women deserve in managing their periods.

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