The Secret to Girls’ Success (Think: Periods)

When you were 14, if you had your period, but your parents couldn’t buy you pads or tampons, would you have gone to school? It’s unimaginable, right? It would have been too gross and humiliating to even consider. Better to pretend to be sick, and deal with the missed work and the bad grades.

In many parts of the world, that’s exactly what happens. And that means that girls don’t get educated, even where they have access to schools. They miss school for several days every month, getting further and further behind in their studies. Many are so embarrassed by this that eventually they drop out. They don’t just miss out on an education; they also lose the one real chance they had to escape poverty, to build a decent life for themselves where they can afford what it takes to educate and empower their own daughters.

(Source: Image by Perrin Ireland for PopTech. Licensed CC BY-SA by Flickr user PopTech.)
(Source: Image by Perrin Ireland for PopTech. Licensed CC BY-SA by Flickr user PopTech.)

Educating girls produces enormous, positive ripple effects. Educated girls marry later, are better able to plan and space their children, and generally have fewer children. This means that they can give each child healthier food, better health care, and a longer education. A woman with an education and a smaller family is more likely to work for wages. Her knowledge and her wage-earning give her more status in the family, and women are especially likely to invest their earnings in their families.

When girls are denied an education, they are more likely to be married off as children, and either not know about modern contraception or not have access to it. Their own health is in jeopardy from repeated childbearing, often in difficult conditions. They are less likely to vaccinate their children, and cannot afford medical care for themselves and their children. They can’t work for wages because of their family responsibilities. They can’t afford to educate their children. So the cycle is repeated, and the woman, her family, and her community suffer.

For want of a sanitary napkin, a kingdom is lost.

Is that overly dramatic? Perhaps. And yet, it makes the important point that while menstrual hygiene might appear to be a trivial issue, one small “horseshoe nail” in a battle against global poverty, it can’t be dismissed. Without the tools to manage menstruation, girls are left out, and without educated women, nations are in trouble.

Megan White Mukuria founded ZanaAfrica to help find solutions to gender inequality promote health education in Africa. (Source: "Megan White Mukuria." Licensed CC BY-NC-SA by Flickr user Kris Krüg.)
Megan White Mukuria founded ZanaAfrica to help find solutions to gender inequality promote health education in Africa. (Source: “Megan White Mukuria.” Licensed CC BY-NC-SA by Flickr user Kris Krüg.)

In some places, tapping in that one small horseshoe nail can make an immediate difference. Six years ago, Megan White Mukuria was trying to figure out what she could do to improve women’s lives in Kenya. Problems related to poverty in Africa can appear discouragingly intractable. A cure for AIDS is probably a ways off, and a miracle cure for endemic government corruption seems even less likely. In a place like Kenya, though, where girls are already allowed and encouraged to attend school, Mukuria saw an opportunity for a simple contribution with a big payoff: affordable and available menstrual pads. With a little ingenuity and a modest financial investment, a developing country could create a source of affordable, locally-produced, environmentally sustainable menstrual pads for its girls and women: a brilliantly low-tech solution to a prime barrier to women’s advancement.

So for the past 6 years, Mukuria has worked tirelessly to create a business model, develop relationships with Kenyan health educators, schools, political leaders, and businesses, and test prototype products and programs. She has quantitatively demonstrated that providing sanitary napkins and underpants keeps girls attending school for more days each year. It is easy to imagine extrapolating Megan’s model far beyond Kenya.

"Kotex: Women Everywhere Prefer Kotex," 1923 magazine advertisement by Portia Novella Jacob for Kotex sanitary napkins. (Source: Ad*Access, Duke University Libraries Digital Collections, id BH0233)
“Kotex: Women Everywhere Prefer Kotex,” 1923 magazine advertisement by Portia Novella Jacob for Kotex sanitary napkins. (Source: Ad*Access, Duke University Libraries Digital Collections, id BH0233)

When Megan invited me to become a Thought Partner to her organization, Zana Africa, I was thrilled to get on board with her effort. A mutual friend had introduced us because of my first book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America.[*] In it, I showed how new menstrual products and attitudes played a crucial, if (mostly) invisible, role in allowing Americans to become “modern.” And in the United States, “modern” is code for “middle class.” I interviewed women and men born from the first years of the twentieth century all the way through the 1980s, and immersed myself in Kotex’s archives. My interviewees explained to me that to become modern, it was important that women have a way to make their periods impinge as little as possible on their daily lives. They wanted menstrual products that prevented leaks, smells, cramps, chafing, and self-consciousness. They also wanted matter-of-fact, thorough education that prevented surprises and embarrassment. Kotex, Tampax, Always, Midol, and sex ed in schools and pamphlets gave them what they wanted: reliable bodies that allowed them to study, work, and play to their fullest. These “modern” bodies gave American women the confidence and the self-presentation that they believed were crucial to their move up the economic ladder.

We might critique this particular “modern” model for menstrual care: what about having more respect for a natural process, and allowing women some leeway to take care of their bodies in different ways from men’s? Are we overrating the value of keeping women’s bodies “under control?”

In an American context, I am happy to have that debate, but when I look at Mukuria’s work in Kenya, I am reluctant to quibble with the “modern” approach. Mukuria has found that girls desperately want the support to be in school when they are menstruating. We ought to support our Kenyan sisters in making their periods modern if that’s what they want. In any case, it will be their own version of modernity, especially if we follow Megan’s lead, and support local production rather than pushing imports. They will choose which methods are preferable (for example, tampons and other methods needing vaginal insertion may be hygienically unfeasible or raise concerns about sexuality and virginity). But having the basic ability to not leak, or chafe, or get an infection from an unwashed rag, is clearly a good thing. I hope we can do what it takes to make modern periods available to women in Kenya and elsewhere in the developing world.

[*] Now on half-price sale direct from the publisher; use code HTMP for $19.95 e-book.

For further reading:

Buckley, Thomas and Alma Gottlieb. Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Freidenfelds, Lara. The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

The Menstrual Cycle: A Feminist Lifespan Perspective, prepared by the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.

United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative website and blog.

Feature image: “Matunduzi School, Girls Education Support Initiative, Malawi 2012” (IM/Creccom partner initiative, Photo by Erik Törner). Used under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

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Reblogged this on winterdominatrix and commented:
A subject close to my heart. Many girls in the USA skip school because of their period. Some girls are poor and welfare does not provide extra for pads, that money comes from the little extra cleaning supplies, toilet paper fund, so, it is often not on he list as basics, and rolled up toilet paper is sometimes used.
When my dad got remarried, my stepmother was abusive and never bought me pads, and made sure I had no allowance to buy them. She was hoping I left home. so I know what it is to be without pads at that time of the month.

You can ruin your pants, and not want to go to school, you can have a heavy day and leak, and cut the rest of school. Other females are understanding, but The humiliation that the guys put them through for bleeding through your clothes makes you gross and disgusting to them, and they let the girls know right away. [another reason I support sex-segregated spaces and woman-only spaces].

There needs to be a charity that collects and provides pads through public schools and food shelters. [yes , a collection for food shelter supply is needed.]


Thank you for pointing out that this isn’t only a developing-nation problem. Appropriately supporting girls’ education is necessary and important everywhere.

Cara Jones

I’d love to teach a course on the politics of menstruation one day. This post is thought-provoking, and I’d like in on the debate about the public politics of menstruating bodies. I also wonder how much research is done on girls and women missing school and work in the US due to menstruation. I know that it was a problem in low-income areas in Baton Rouge, and when I was doing my graduate work there, the Women’s & Gender Studies program had tampon & pad collection drives. Missing school/work is often situated as a “foreign” (usually African) problem, but it happens in the US, too (and I suspect in other places). Reading this, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed at the neglect of reusable menstrual products, such as Lunapads’s Pads4Girls program and GladRags’s “Empower Women in Africa” program (and the suggestion that they’re unhygienic “unwashed rags”)–I’d like to see more nuanced discussion on this topic, as from an ecological perspective, the manufacturing and use of disposable products can be problematic at best.


Yes, these are relevant issues. Mukuria and her colleagues at ZanaAfrica have done a lot of research on disposable vs. reusable menstrual pads. It turns out that reusable pads can be very difficult to implement in certain circumstances. Many women in Kenya do not have easy access to water, or a private place to hang wet menstrual pads. So, in fact, when girls use cloth pads they often become “unwashed rags” that promote infections. ZanaAfrica is working hard to develop eco-friendly, locally-produced disposable pads, as the current best solution. At some point, I will write again about some of these issues, and the way that menstrual care as it has developed in the West is very much situated in a culture of heavy cloth production and water use. While “traditional” menstrual care in the West entailed creating menstrual pads from cotton rags, in many places in Africa, “traditional” care used disposable natural resources such as absorbent grasses. Many of these traditional solutions are no longer available because of ecological changes and population concentration.


I wonder if there is a way to make biodegradable pads they use, then can bury that would break down into fertilizer, or burn as fuel?
[ just a thought,]


Great ideas! My guess is that fertilizer would be easier than fuel. Trying to think these things through definitely highlights the importance of gathering information from the people on the ground in a given locale. Global discussion and idea-sharing is great. Figuring out the best current solution and implementing it is almost always a local project. When Zana and its partners figures out an eco-friendly pad, I hope the product and the ideas behind it will be shared globally, with developed and developing communities alike.

Carolyn Herbst Lewis

Another fantastic organization working on this issue in Rwanda is SHE (Sustainable Health Enterprises). I met the founder, Elizabeth Scharpf, last year when she won the Grinnell Prize and came to speak with students in my history of medicine class. They make their product out of banana fibers, and she used her blender to test materials. It’s incredible!


That’s so great. The more different on-the-ground, locally-integrated efforts that are made, the more likely that they will stick. They will also offer more potential models that can be adapted to a variety of local conditions.

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