People in all different cultures have been made to feel ashamed about their periods. For many of us, this shame takes the form of embarrassment about leaks, censorship on social media sites, or criticism for discussing our cycles. But in some parts of the world, the menstruation taboo can cost people their educations, their careers, and even their lives. For International Women's Day, Meghan Markle, the actress dating Prince Harry, penned an essay for Time to remind us of this.
As part of her humanitarian work with World Vision, Markle went to India in January and saw firsthand what period stigma can do to adolescent girls there, 113 million of whom may drop out of school due to their periods. The fact that only half of the country's secondary schools have toilets makes it even worse.
"During my time in the field, many girls shared that they feel embarrassed to go to school during their periods, ill equipped with rags instead of pads, unable to participate in sports, and without bathrooms available to care for themselves, they often opt to drop out of school entirely," she wrote. "Furthermore, with minimal dialogue about menstrual health hygiene either at school or home due to the taboo nature of the subject, many girls believe their bodies are purging evil spirits, or that they are injured once a month; this is a shame-filled reality they quietly endure. All of these factors perpetuate the cycle of poverty and stunt a young girl's dream for a more prolific future."
This problem is, of course, not unique to India. According to the period-tracking app Clue's survey "Talking About Periods – An International Investigation," 17% of women worldwide have missed school, work, or something else important due to their periods. Another study by the United Nations and Emory University found that 30% of girls in Afghanistan and 21% in Sierra Leone skipped school during their time of month. The consequences of period shame can even be fatal: A 15-year-old girl in Nepal recently died while confined to an outdoor hut because she was menstruating, NPR reports.
As the Day Without a Woman draws attention to all the amazing contributions women's work makes to the world, Markle's essay reminds us that it's much harder for women to accomplish all these things when their basic health needs aren't met.
"Wasted opportunity is unacceptable with stakes this high," she concludes. "To break the cycle of poverty, and to achieve economic growth and sustainability in developing countries, young women need access to education. When we empower girls hungry for education, we cultivate women who are emboldened to effect change within their communities and globally. If that is our dream for them, then the promise of it must begin with us. Period."