Monday 28 May is Menstrual Hygiene Day and this year's theme is #NoMoreLimits. Just a Drop's Senior Programmes Manager Melissa Campbell discusses the fundamental role that menstrual hygiene plays in enabling women and girls to reach their full potential:

As a mother of two teenage girls I have been struck by the difference between their experience of starting their periods living in the UK and that of some of the girls we are working with in Uganda.

We have always been quite open about talking about periods with our daughters so they knew what to expect. If there was anything we had missed out they also had lessons in primary and secondary school around puberty and sexual and reproductive health. These lessons are aimed at all children so that boys can learn what girls are going through and if parents don’t feel able to talk to talk to their children then they will have some explanation at school so in principle no girl should get a shock when they get their first period and wonder what on earth has happened to them.

Girls here in the UK also have access to a range of sanitary products that are affordable for most people, and easily available in all sorts of shops from supermarkets and chemists to the corner shop or garage, as well as online.  Painkillers are also easily available and relatively cheap. If needed girls can also visit the local doctor for free and, if necessary, get a prescription that is also free.

Contrast this with conversations I have had with girls in Uganda through my work with water and sanitation INGO, Just a Drop.  For many of these girls their first experience of a period is one of fear and alarm, convinced that they must be very ill as they had no idea why they were bleeding. They have no access to affordable sanitary products and so most make use of pieces of old clothing or mattress stuffing which are hard to keep clean and can therefore cause infections. If they can afford to buy sanitary products there is very little choice available and the main option is disposable pads which cost more than washable pads and have the added problem of how to dispose of them.  Many girls in Uganda are unsure what is ‘normal’ menstrual bleeding and what is not so they don’t know when they should seek medical help– and if they do decide they need to see a doctor, they have to pay for transport to get to a town with a clinic, and then pay to see a doctor, and then pay for any medication.  This means that they often wait until a condition has become very serious before visiting a doctor and so something that could have been easily resolved becomes a potentially long term health problem and also a far costlier one. 

This sort of experience is not just limited to girls in Uganda.  Adolescent girls and women in countries all over the world feel ashamed and embarrassed by their periods and have to suffer many indignities for a week every month of the year. Most women will spend on average 6 ½ years of their lives menstruating (if you add all their periods together) which has a profound impact on their lives. Girls often miss school during their period, which can lead to them falling behind in their studies, and is a contributing factor for girls dropping out of school early or not doing as well as they could, thus perpetuating gender inequalities in education.  After leaving school, girls and women often stay around the home during their period if they cannot always afford sanitary products and this limits their abilities to work. All this damages the self-confidence and sense of worth of both girls and women.  Alternatively, if girls do go to school when they have their period they can face teasing and bullying from boys who don’t understand what periods are either.  Boys and men are often forgotten but it is critical that they are also informed about menstruation.  Boys need to understand how puberty affects girls as well as themselves and how they can be supportive to girls rather than teasing them. Men need to understand how periods affect education and employment of their daughters and their wives; not least so that they prioritise money for sanitary products.

The solution isn’t simple and it isn’t just about access to sanitary products. Girls need to be empowered to know that they have a right to have their period with dignity. This means having access to affordable sanitary products but also means having access to clean toilets that have water, soap and space available to wash and which are separate for boys and girls; it means having somewhere to dispose of sanitary products if they are not using reusable products.  Putting disposable pads down a pit latrine (the most common form of toilet in many countries) quickly fills the pit and incinerators are expensive so they are not really an option for most schools.  Above all, it means understanding what menstruation is and learning to embrace it rather than dread it and see it as a curse; and for those around you to understand it and therefore be supportive of you during your period. We need to banish myths and taboos around periods that reinforce feelings of shame and isolation and instead celebrate periods as a vital part of what it is to be a woman.  Once this happens it frees girls and women to fulfil their potential or, in the words of Grace from one of the Ugandan schools we work with said, now “I can conquer my future”.