Menstruation Stigma Costs Girls Dearly: Development Group and MIT Create Affordable Sanitary Pads

Monday, March 8, 2010

Three days a month, Annalita is too embarrassed to go to school.

The Rwandan teen, like millions of her peers worldwide, is menstruating. Her family can’t afford sanitary pads, so Annalita makes do with what few materials she can find including rags, bark and mud.

But these makeshift pads are usually ineffective. Rather than focusing on her studies, Annalita spends her day anxious about a potential accident in front of her classmates.

She also worries about embarrassment in her community. Menstruation carries a stigma of uncleanliness. Considering she can’t openly wash and dry her rags, walking home in soiled clothing would bring her further shame.

“If you have pads when you are travelling it would be easy,” said Annalita at a meeting run by community health workers. There in the crowded, dirt-floored room it had taken some time for her to start talking. Soon though, everyone became eager to discuss the dilemma. “That would help you to continue with your daily programs and let you go where you wanted to go and do what you wanted to do.”

Menstruation is rarely viewed as a pressing issue in developing nations. But, as community health workers encourage girls like Annalita to talk, they uncover a staggering problem. Every year, women and girls miss on average 50 days of work or school because they can’t afford effective sanitary pads.

For Annalita, this could amount to 5 years of lost potential as she hides due to shame.

But, Elizabeth Scharpf wants Annalita to be free of embarrassment every day of the month.

“I think you have to understand what resonates with each group of people,” says the founder of Sustainable Health Enterprises, a social enterprise focusing on market-based approaches to development. “For example, when we talk to the Rwandan Minister of Finance, we talk about the economic consequences of girls not going to school. We talk about the future of the country.”

Source: Toronto Star (link opens in a new window)