It's often said that you can't understand another person's experience until you've walked in their shoes – and there's few people in the West who could claim to have first-hand experience of the challenges of menstruation in the developing world. Save Roz Campbell, that is.
When Campbell, 30, heard about girls missing out on school when they had their period because of inadequate access to sanitary supplies – and often eventually dropping out – she decided to donate half the profits of her start-up Tsuno (sustainable pads) to the cause. But before she could talk about the importance of the issue, she felt she needed to experience it.
“I was paranoid it was going to leak and I'd be caught with nothing out in public.”
For the past two Septembers, Campbell has spent her period without the use of pads, tampons or menstrual cups, instead using newspaper, rags, sponges, leaves and bark - just like millions of girls in developing nations.
“I was so uncomfortable,” says Campbell who used the experience to raise money for Sierra Leone girl-focused project Do It In A Dress.
“The first time I used a new sponge it stung because it was full of chemicals. The next time I rinsed it out but it dried hard and was like a brick of sandpaper sitting in my underwear grinding my butt cheeks.”
As for the leaves, she says they were useless and using rags made her hot and sweaty. Campbell says she opted out of socialising and her work productivity dropped significantly.
“I was paranoid it was going to leak and I'd be caught with nothing out in public,” she admits.
It was only relatively recently that periods were recognised internationally as a barrier for girls' education in the developing world.
Marni Sommer, Columbia University associate professor of sociomedical sciences, was one of the first researchers to make the link in 2004 after she'd worked as a teacher at a school in Eritrea. Its lack of toilets left her wondering how girls dealt with their periods.
An unasked question
“We knew a lot of girls were dropping out at puberty but we were told they were getting married,” Sommer tells SBS.
“In the literature I saw occasional references to a toilet having something to do with [girls dropping out]. I thought nobody seemed to be looking at this, maybe because no one wanted to talk about it.”
The issue is not news to women like Fiona Mavhinga from African NGO CAMFED (Campaign for Female Education) who grew up in rural Zimbabwe.
“When you are using pieces of cloth you can't focus or pay full attention in class,” she tells SBS. “Imagine if that rag soaks up and you stain your uniform. There are lots of instances where cotton wool soaks up and falls out and everyone can see it – the humiliation is unbearable.”
At about $1-$2 for a 10-pack of pads, Mavhinga says many families can't afford sanitary supplies.
Most girls end up staying home for up to seven days a month, which she says has a significant impact on their education. “There was a study done by UNICEF that estimated the number of school days a girl misses is about 528 days,” she says.
“That's nearly two years missed as a result of menstruation, so it affects girls' participation, retention and performance at school. Most girls come into their early teens full of confidence wanting to tackle life … but [managing their period] melts down their confidence.”
“We have a long way to go but it's a real delight from where things were in 2004,” Sommer says. “[But] everybody is struggling to figure out what's the best solution. Is it commercial sanitary pads and trying to make them cheaper or is it local organisations making pads? Or is it reusables?”
“I think people see pads as a magic bullet but it doesn't fix everything.”
Reusable cloth pads might sound like a cost-effective, sustainable solution but Mavhinga says they're not always practical.
“Sometimes you may not have adequate detergent and soap to wash it,” she points out. “It ends up stained and you may be afraid to hang it outside. There are also myths associated with people seeing menstrual blood so you don't want to hang it outside for everyone to see.”
Many girls dry them under their beds, which can become a bacteria haven, so CAMFED has chosen to supply disposable pads to girls involved in their education programs in rural Africa. “Most schools have pit latrines so they can dispose of them there,” Mavhinga explains.
While Sommer recognises that hygienic sanitary supplies are an issue, her major focus is on getting girls access to clean toilets and water at school. “I think people see pads as a magic bullet but it doesn't fix everything.” Mavhinga says education and empowerment of mothers and teachers is also crucial.
Dr Dani Barrington, Monash University research fellow and the Australian coordinator for Menstrual Hygiene Day, says, “It's really about working with the communities about what is appropriate and what it is that they actually want.
“Being able to manage your period is a human right. It doesn't have to be free – it has to be affordable. We've got to be able to come up with ways that women can manage it hygienically and privately in a way that they actually want to.”
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Image courtesy of Flickr/Joana Coccarelli.