“It’s my week of shame.”
That’s what Miki Agrawal heard from a 12-year-old girl in the South African countryside who was missing school. More specifically, that was why the girl was missing school.
Inspired by that conversation, Agrawal co-founded Thinx, which has developed absorbent underwear designed to be worn by menstruating girls and women. For each pair of Thinx underwear sold, the company provides a set of AFRIpads, reusable menstrual pads manufactured in southwest Uganda, to someone who needs it. AFRIpads has additional partners that offer similar buy-one, give-one deals.
Around the world, a significant obstacle to girls’ education is an anachronistic taboo around menstruation. Too many developing countries regard girls having their period to be unclean or impure. Many groups, cultures, and religions, even in “advanced nations,” attribute magical powers to menstrual blood.1
These beliefs can have a subtle yet brutal impact on the behavior and treatment of girls as they reach puberty. Customs restrict what these girls can eat, who and what they can touch, whether they can wash or touch water. Attitudes toward menstruation make it harder to keep going to school.
Even in wealthy countries, menstruation can be shrouded in ignorance, embarrassment, and shame. “The minute you have to go to the nurse or ask someone for something that you need for your normal bodily function, you’re telling girls that something is wrong,” Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, a member of the New York City Council, wrote on Facebook.
So Ferreras-Copeland made tampons freely available in the girls’ restroom of one high school in her district. She says that money is a barrier even in the United States, since some forms of public assistance do not cover the cost of tampons or sanitary pads.
“Some young girls have said, ‘I know my mother is struggling to pay the bills, I don’t feel comfortable asking her for pads also,’” she told New York Magazine. “So some of them would just rather stay home or find themselves using one pad for the whole day.”
In the developing world, meanwhile, most girls cannot afford tampons or sanitary pads, if they are even locally available, and many schools in these countries lack private toilets and running water. According to UNICEF, an estimated one in 10 pubescent girls in Africa will skip school or drop out because of the challenges of menstruation. “In countries where menstrual hygiene is taboo, girls in puberty are typically absent for 20% of the school year,” a UNICEF report said. Another survey of girls in Afghanistan found that 29% do not attend school when they are having their period.
More than 750,000 women and girls have received AFRIpads, which are sold in Uganda and distributed internationally by NGOs and relief agencies. And AFRIpads have an impact on opportunities for girls, in school and beyond. “With AFRIpads, girls are encouraged to go to school without worrying about being embarrassed during their menstruation periods,” says Charles Ssevume of Save the Children.
“Every extra year a girl stays in school, she has a higher earning potential, and for every year of gainful employment, [is] more likely to engage in family planning,” Sophia Grinvalds, co-founder of AFRIpads, told NPR. Education helps girls and boys around the world to fulfill their human potential.
There are many approaches to innovation in education right now. All around the world, people are using different strategies to remove barriers to learning, from putting a robot in school so a sick child can have a classroom presence to putting wifi on school buses so students without Internet access at home can bridge the digital divide.
Menstruation is among the greatest practical barriers to global education. Initiatives like AFRIpads and Julissa Ferreras-Copeland’s effort in New York City public schools show that you don’t need to be a techie to be a great education innovator. Everybody brings their own skills and passion to the table, and their own awareness of problems that need solving.
I believe that access to free K–12 education is among our most fundamental human rights. Education, after all, is what makes human beings special and different from every other animal. It’s also smart policy for every country that wants to be more stable, enlightened, prosperous, and powerful. Any innovation, large or small, digital or material, that increases access to free K–12 education is a great thing.
Menstruation cannot, in fact, frighten away storms, preserve crops, cure disease, prevent hair from turning grey, alter the orbit of the moon, or challenge the spiritual power of male shamans. ↩