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Menstruation is Normal

Several years ago I was walking through communities in Northern Uganda and found this slogan painted on the side of a school building The school was out of session, so the classrooms were empty that day, and I found myself lingering a little longer, thinking about the message it shared with its students every day: Menstruation is Normal. As part of a WASH campaign, the other buildings had other messages – about handwashing and drinking safe water – but it was this one that caught me because of its boldness.

As a woman, I would have to agree, menstruation is normal. While I experience this normal event every month, most of the time these are messages that are saved for health class, conversations with our moms and female friends, or with the doctors. In America, we easily (and affordably) buy tampons and pads to deal with the bleeding and are nearly always assured of having a private bathroom in which to change pads during the day. Our lives do not need to stop because we are menstruating. But that is not the case everywhere.

My periods started relatively young, when I was 11 years old. At this age, I was the first of my friends to experience this change in my body, and the bathroom stalls at my school were not equipped with the bins to throw away used pads. Instead, I had to carry the wrapped and used pads to the main bin in the bathroom (hopefully while no-one noticed). A few months later, I moved up a grade and the situation changed. But, that is how it started out.

For a lot of girls around the world, menstruating is not just a little embarrassment or issue of awkward bin placement, it is the beginning of the end of their days at school. Without easy and affordable access to sanitary pads, their periods can be a reason to skip school and stay at home. Even when those are available, if they do not have good latrines (ones that are clean, that are enough for the students (no long lines during break time), that have proper doors to provide privacy and dignity), then there is no place to change their pads during the during the day, and, again, there is a reason to skip school. It is not an issue of embarrassment about where to throw a pad, it is about a place that is private enough to change a pad. Average cycles are 28 days or 4 weeks, and bleeding occurs for an average of 3-5 days every cycle. School is missed and girls fall behind.

Every time I have my period and I have a private place to deal with my period, I am thankful. I am thankful that when I was a young girl, it was an issue of where to throw away a pad, not an issue of access to pads or to toilets or to water. It did not impact my desire or ability to go to school. It never caused me to skip school or fall behind in a class. I am lucky.

And so, today, this is one of the reasons that I am passionate about building good latrines at schools everywhere Lifewater works. Here is the deal: menstruation is normal and latrines are a front-line response to this fact. Girls and women need private bathrooms. We need to help communities and families make the provisions so that girls will really believe that menstruation is normal — something that is only possible when we treat it as normal and make the needed provisions. If you don’t believe me, ask the women your life if they avoid places with bad bathrooms when they are menstruating. I bet they will have a few stories to share. I keep this photo in my office as a daily reminder. Let’s make this a normal conversation, and let’s help girls stay in school.