What if girls and women all over the world had access to safe feminine hygiene?
Picture yourself as an 11-year-old girl. You’re going about your day, waiting for the bus or walking yourself to school, marching to class, talking to your friends, maybe studying for a quiz — everything is going according to plan. You even remembered your lunch money and a fresh set of gym clothes today.
You’re ready for anything.
Then you go to the bathroom.
Someone probably prepared you for this, whether that someone was the female teacher who found herself tasked with explaining the ins and outs of puberty to a class of giggling schoolchildren, or your mother, or your know-it-all sister who just wanted to remind you how wise she was.
Whoever your teacher was, chances are she bestowed enough knowledge on you that you now refrain from running from the bathroom yelling, “I’m hemorrhaging,” à la Vada Sultenfuss in My Girl.
You’re surprised, but you know what to do. You walk slowly to the nurse, wondering if at any second someone will see you and read your mind. You ask her for a sanitary pad — realizing you have never actually said those words aloud — and she tells you where you can find them anytime.
Anytime: because this is now part of your life, but it’s a manageable part.
Back to the bathroom, back to class, and you go on with your day, knowing something about you is different, but otherwise unfazed. You have that quiz coming up, after all.
This milestone could have been a greater obstacle.
Rewind and examine this process again: what would you have done if there weren’t a bathroom at your school? If your friendly nurse hadn’t offered you the supplies you needed — or if there just hadn’t been a nurse at all?
In an interview with NPR, Marni Somner of Columbia University discussed the growth of a field of research surrounding menstrual hygiene and school attendance for girls in low-income countries. (The World Bank classifies countries based on their GNI per capita.) Somner said, “When I got started doing this in 2004, it was a pretty lonely world.” But what started as a few passionate researchers has become a movement for social justice for girls. In the same article, Paul Montgomery speaks of a study in which he and his collaborators were able to show the beginnings of proof that access to menstrual hygiene products, and education about menstrual hygiene, could help keep girls in school.
Montgomery and his team were pioneers, showing a decline in the dropout rate when girls had access to sanitary pads, menstrual hygiene education, or both. They were able to quantify a longstanding hunch: that the secret to keeping girls in school might be, at least in part, addressing their menstruation.
That was in 2014, the same year Unesco released a report encouraging the effective implementation of menstrual hygiene programs in schools. Effective meant considering all those aforementioned variables: education on menstrual health, a bathroom for female students and teachers and access to safe and affordable supplies.
The issue of access to appropriate sanitation facilities has been an arduous battle — one that proponents cite for its far-reaching implications in spite of its inherent lack of glamour.
The battle for menstrual hygiene has proven no less difficult for the innovators who’ve stepped up to the plate. While women in the U.S. and other high-income countries have access to an array of menstrual hygiene products — from tampons to period panties — their counterparts in low-income countries have a very different set of options.
In its report, Unesco details the options available to women from low-income countries for managing their menses: everything from leaves and ash to expensive manufactured feminine hygiene products. They weighed the pros of single-use options (namely, the elimination of the need to wash and dry cloth options, which women found embarrassing) versus reusable options (cost savings is a huge driver). They eliminated options like tampons and menstrual cups that, due to their invasive nature, would never be culturally acceptable.
They came up at a draw, leaving the question to the women themselves: What do you prefer?
Moreover, what would they have sustainable access to?
The researchers and aid workers were not alone in asking these questions. In fact, they had been effectively “scooped” by people all over the world. In India, Arunachalam Muruganantham made headlines for inventing a machine that would allow women — specifically his own wife — to make their own sanitary pads. He was inspired when he realized the rags she used in secret were unimaginably filthy.
The issue: sanitary pads were expensive. They were sold at a 40% markup relative to the cotton material they were made of. This left women with two options: buy safe hygiene products, or buy food for their families.
All but 12% of women across India opted for food.
Muruganantham was determined, but he was also starting without much knowledge of the challenge. He didn’t even realize women menstruated only once each month. He tried improvising with sheep’s blood and a home-made “uterus” so that he could test the pads himself. People thought he was perverse because of his experiments, and ultimately his wife left him.
But he persisted, and his machines ended up in 1,300 villages. He saw the power of his work. It was not just about giving women comfort during their menstruation. It was about giving them jobs; it was about keeping girls in school.
With options like Muruganantham’s pads, the problem still cited is that many women in low-income countries do not have underwear to hold the pads in place.
So what if, instead of making pads, they made underwear?
When the ads for THINX panties started popping up around the internet, they seemed like the next millennial fad. Their ads are stark and simple. They offer exactly nine different styles, rated by the number of tampons they theoretically replace — ranging from one-half to two.
For those who don’t know, users are advised to replace their tampon every four hours. While those with a heavy flow may need to replace theirs more often, let’s say one tampon equals four hours, so a pair of underwear that replaces two tampons could last a woman eight hours.
Eight hours would get a girl through a day in school. Eight hours of protection from leaks. Eight hours of uninterrupted, unimpeded education.
Washing underwear would be less conspicuous than washing cloths that are easily identifiable as makeshift feminine hygiene products, eliminating the shame that prevents women from thoroughly cleaning their cloths. While initially more expensive, period panties would be cheaper than disposable pads in the long run.
So how are period panties going to save the world?
By keeping girls in school.
The education of women has been identified as a driver of economic success. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described women’s education as a tool for driving economic development. Not only that, but period panties just might make all of society healthier.
Let’s connect the dots: if period panties help girls manage their menstrual hygiene, and if that keeps girls in school, then what happens next?
Well, a lot of things.
Those girls could end up becoming mothers. Research suggests that if they do, they may end up having healthier children. No, not because of their period panties: because of their educational attainment.
Speaking at the 2017 Unite for Sight conference in New Haven, Connecticut, Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles shared a story. She told the audience how two important social issues in the U.S. — child nutrition and school attendance — came together and were met with a single solution. These two problems were successfully combatted with the rollout of school lunch programs: nutritious food provided an incentive to be in school.
She went on to talk about maternal education and child health, stating that research shows each additional year of education for a mother significantly improves the health outcomes of her children.
In other words, the battle for women’s education and child health might be one and the same — and they might just converge over the issue of menstrual hygiene.
If period panties can keep girls in school, they could keep children healthy.
A mother’s education can make her a better advocate for her children. It can teach her how to form an argument and give her the confidence to speak up. And perhaps just the knowledge that she has years of education backing her words will be enough to tilt the scales.