Boost Education Early to Reduce Menstruation Stigma

Editor's note: This blog post was written by Project WET summer assistant Rosalyn Kutsch for use by Decode Global as part of the tumblr site for their new game, Maya's 7-Day Challenge. It is cross-posted here with their permission.

Periods are irritating. I don't know anyone who looks forward to "that time of the month"—I certainly don't! However, for many women around the world, menstruation is far more than a mere annoyance or discomfort. Superstitions and stigma surround this natural bodily function, jeopardizing the health and welfare of women and girls. The stigma may not be as serious in a place like Bozeman, Montana, where I live, but the general embarrassment that most girls feel when talking about their period says it all. Public reluctance to address the issues faced by girls and women around the world regarding their reproductive health seriously inhibits the educational potential of half of the population.

In countries where strong taboos surround menstruation, women and girls who are menstruating are ostracized from their communities. They can be restricted from cooking, praying or touching men or livestock. Some are even sent away to isolated dwellings for as much as one week a month because menstruating women are considered toxic. In isolation, they face danger from snake and insect bites as well as malnutrition, since they often are not allowed to cook for themselves while menstruating. Rapists have also been known to target women on their own in these circumstances.

Even in developing countries in which such strong anti-menstruation traditions do not prevail, the lack of sanitary supplies and facilities can create problems. Girls and women must use what is available to control the bleeding-husks, dried leaves, grass, ash, sand or newspapers-which can lead to infection. Little education is made available about women's reproductive systems, putting women and girls at greater risk of early or unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

All of these issues greatly impede the educational opportunities of women and girls around the world. Global numbers are hard to come by, but the current dropout rate for girls who are menstruating is staggering. UNICEF said in 2012 that girls in developing countries miss over 20 percent of their school year because of menstruation. In India, 23 percent of girls drop out of school when they reach puberty. In Africa, the dropout rate is reported to be 1 in 10 women, and in Nepal, over half of girls have missed school due to menstruation, citing lack of privacy and facilities.

Educating girls has been shown to improve a host of issues, including not only girls' own economic prospects but also the health of economies as a whole. Still, access to education remains one of the most challenging issues facing the developing world. Menstruation is only one of the factors restricting girls' education, but it is one that the public shies away from confronting. We need to dissolve the menstruation stigma through awareness to motivate those who have the power to address the issue. The question is how to do that.

I learned about Decode Global while doing an internship with the Project WET Foundation, a water education organization that works around the world. I am impressed with how Decode Global has already demonstrated the ability to raise awareness and inspire action around water by developing the game "Get Water!". Next on their agenda is "Maya's 7-Day Challenge", which will tackle the menstruation issue head-on. Because it is geared toward students around my age and younger, it should be a great tool for raising awareness early.

My generation is extremely tech-oriented, and the use of computer games and apps to illustrate social issues is a great way to heighten awareness and promote compassion. While I've heard menstruation raised as an issue in outlets that target North American girls, the focus is usually on personal acceptance of one's body and reducing the mystery of feminine hygiene. There is little awareness of the hardships faced by girls reaching puberty around the world. Menstruation no longer stops women in developed countries from attending school. We have access to basic needs like sanitary products and clean, menstruation-friendly sanitary facilities in most public places. We can even use birth control and painkillers to further control menstruation. In addition, we have at least a basic level of education about the topic in most schools.

With the proliferation of mobile technology, this game has the potential to reach women and girls in India, and it also has the ability to help reduce stigma around menstruation in the developed world, motivating future activists and policymakers who have the power to make an impact.

Interning at Project WET, I have seen how education can drive positive behavior changes. This is true not only for the girls in developing countries who lack education about menstruation, but also for girls in cultures like mine who lack knowledge about their struggling peers. The change needed to keep girls in schools and provide them with proper sanitation facilities and access to sanitary supplies begins with education.

Rosalyn Kutsch is 16 years old and lives in Bozeman, Montana. She worked as an assistant for the Project WET Foundation during Summer 2013.

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