Every girl can tell you the unfortunate story of getting her first period. The first chaotic panic of thinking you’re dying from what can only initially described as a vagina nosebleed. Or fumbling with tampon applicators and being self-conscious of the sound the plastic makes when pulled from the sticky side of a sanitary pad in public bathrooms. And definitely that awful story of leaking through your tampon in school and praising sweet Jesus even now that on that dreaded day you had a sweatshirt in your backpack to tie around your grateful waist.
Every girl has this story. Well, at least every first-world girl.
In the developing world, girl’s period parables go a little differently. In many countries still, girls lack knowledge not only on what menstruation is but what to do about it. When remembering their first period, many girls recall going to their mother, ignorant of what was happening, and being told to take a bath.
A 16-year-old girl from Nepal told Refinery29, “I felt so scared. I didn’t want to tell my family, so I went to my neighbor’s house.”
But even in countries where there is some education on menstruation, there is often a scarcity of sanitary pads and availability of other feminine hygiene products. Girls rely on old rags or leaves, which are both difficult to keep tidy while wearing and hygienic afterward. Many girls recall cleaning their rags with water then letting them dry in the sun. Of course, these rags aren’t even a tenth as absorbent as the more modern sanitary pads, and many girls have to stay home from school for fear of leakage.
Another girl from Sri Lanka told Refinery29, “Girls usually spend three to seven days in a secure place, such as a room in their house. During that time, only female members are allowed to see us — no men, family, or non-family members are allowed in.”
The problem of the period for many women in developing nations is that it takes them out of the world, isolates them and shames them for something that is entirely natural.
In order to combat the menstruation taboo in India, Priya Shankar, a Boston University School of Medicine student, created Girls Health Champions, an education project for young women. The project works in collaboration with an all-girls school in India to start up a female health curriculum that works peer to peer on negative social norms in India that are often detrimental to a girl’s health.
The program teaches girls about their periods, their rights as women and how to open a dialogue about these social taboos that are usually left untouched. Shankar’s organization is currently being considered for the top prize in the President’s Challenge at Harvard University, which would include access to the resources at the Harvard Innovation Lab and a pool of $100,000 that will be split between the winning team and the three runners up.
If Shankar wins the prize, it will mean more resources and education availability for many girls in India. Shankar plans to expand her project to 10 to 20 more schools across India this summer, with a focus on sustainable female leadership and community. Though these women have limited resources, they too have a period story to tell, and it’s time we all began to listen.