By not talking about periods, girls are missing out on school, which is impacting their futures. Here are just three aspects of life which are restricted when menstruation is unmentionable.

Every day, more than 800 million women between the ages of 15 and 49 have their periods. And yet menstruation is a globally stigmatised issue shrouded in silence, secrecy and shame. It’s a topic which can be embarrassing to talk about and some cultures have developed harmful ideas and beliefs about menstruation.

The average adolescent girl will be affected by menstruation for 3,000 days in their lifetime. That works out to more than eight years! The basics which make a period bearable – having a private place to manage it, knowing there are people to talk to who understand and having hygienic materials to use – aren’t a reality for many girls and women in some developing countries.

By not talking about periods, girls are missing out on school, which is impacting their futures. Here are just three personal and societal aspects of life which are restricted when menstruation becomes an unmentionable part of being female.

1) Education

Suffering in silence: the period taboo

Girls are missing school due to completely preventable reasons. The availability of good hygiene facilities in schools makes a vital difference to whether girls attend during their periods. If girls don’t have access to sanitary pads they will often choose to leave school early, or stay home altogether. UNESCO estimates that a shocking 1 in 10 school-age African girls do not attend school during menstruation. This puts girls at an immediate disadvantage and can lead to lower grades, constantly having to play catch-up, and, in some cases, eventually dropping out of school altogether.

In Uganda, a staggering 28 per cent of girls don’t attend school when they have their period, meaning they miss an average of four days of school each month. That’s 20 per cent of their school year. Imagine the impact on your education if you had to miss one-fifth of the content every year.

2) Health

Suffering in silence: the period taboo

When a girl reaches puberty, access to a safe, private toilet can make a huge difference to her health. It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around when we have safe drinking water on tap, hot showers in the morning and night and toilets which flush at the touch of a button.

But one in three people around the world don’t have access to adequate sanitation, which means 1.25 billion women around the world do not have access to a private toilet during their periods. Girls need clean water to wash themselves or their menstrual cloths and a place to dispose of their sanitary pads if they are using them.

Many women and girls do not have access to feminine hygiene products to use and only 12 per cent of girls and women have access to commercial sanitary products.

3) Dignity

Suffering in silence: the period taboo

Stigmas and taboos around menstruation directly affect a girl’s dignity, confidence and self-esteem. Many cultures do not talk about periods openly. This means that girls often never hear of menstruation before their first period, making it a confusing and scary experience. That is the reality for an incredible 68 per cent of girls in Ghana who knew nothing about menstruation when they started their periods.

Taboos around menstruation can also mean that girls are often told they can’t do certain things whilst on their period. The women in the semi-nomadic Maasai region of Kenya are not allowed to enter goat pens or milk cows, while in many Southeast Asian communities, menstruating girls are not permitted to use the same water facilities as the rest of the community. These restrictions add to the isolation, shame and loneliness of menstruation.

We’re passionate about empowering girls through providing vital health education and support. Thanks to education provided by our Child Sponsorship Program and extra support through Compassion’s Critical Needs and Gifts of Compassion, we’re empowering girls to overcome some of these obstacles.

Jesca explains the difference a block of 12 private toilets at her child development centre in Tanzania has made to her life. “As a growing girl, I have lots of needs and must take care with my hygienic practices. I was not comfortable with the available toilet, since it exposed us to various diseases and there was no privacy. These changes mean a lot to me and to other children in the centre as it will ensure a safe and comfortable place for our needs.”

In Magangué, Colombia, new bathrooms offer better sanitary conditions and safe water for the project. Pastor José says the toilets also provide the opportunity to teach the children about maintaining good hygiene. “We are offering children the opportunity to learn proper hygiene habits, and they become motivators for improving practices in their homes.”

This Christmas, you can be the solution to one of the most urgent needs in the developing world: access to safe water and sanitation. By purchasing the gift of clean water or a toilet block for a loved one, you’ll both play a part in changing the lives of children and families living in poverty. Check out the gifts.

Words by Beth Borrett

Sources: We can’t wait: a report on sanitation and hygiene for women and girls, UNESCO, Puberty Education & Menstrual Hygiene Management, WHO, Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council

This article originally appeared on the Compassion UK blog.