Many of us living in developed countries sometimes take for granted that — despite the cramps, the tampon tax, and other minor inconveniences — getting our periods doesn't have a huge impact on our day-to-day lives.
But for young girls across the globe, having access to sanitary products can directly make or break their futures.
In Africa, 1 in 10 school-aged girls miss classes or drop out of school because of their periods, according to a widely cited UNICEF report. But in the country of Malawi, an initiative dedicated to producing reusable sanitary pads might help girls stay in school for good.
Earlier this year, photographer Julia Gunther and her partner, Nick Schonfeld, visited Green Malata, an entrepreneurial training village run by the Children's Fund of Malawi. There, they discovered Green Malata's reusable sanitary tailoring program and decided to spend time with the people who make the pads and the girls using them.
"For us, the main aim with this story, aside from conveying the facts, of course, is to illustrate how a seemingly incongruous object, like a sanitary pad can significantly impact the lives of young women," Gunther told Refinery29.
In Malawi, menstrual products are extremely expensive. The supply shortage causes women to use improvised alternatives, such as rags, mattress foam, toilet paper, and other products to deal with their periods, according to Gunther. And on top of that, Gunther found that about 85% of the population lives in rural areas, where sanitary products are incredibly hard to come by. Not only do these conditions put women at risk of infections or other health problems, but they also put them at disadvantage in society.
"Although Malawi’s constitution guarantees equal rights for all, in reality, women remain disadvantaged in many aspects of daily life," Gunther said. "They are not treated equally by the law, they lack access to education, employment, and health care, and often are completely reliant on their husbands, fathers, or brothers."
That's why the reusable pads are such a breakthrough for many girls: They don't need to miss classes anymore and, in the long run, can stay in school.
"Going to school allows them to get a job, being employed means earning money, and being financially self-reliant is often the first step to true freedom," she said. "The reusable sanitary pads made at Green Malata, and those produced elsewhere in the world, are an important way for women to [get] the independence they deserve."
Ahead, a look at how this program is changing the lives of girls in Malawi.