When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them that I’m a travel ambassador. First they ask what that means (in my case, it means that I host a socially conscious travel series on PBS). Then they ask how can they become one, too!
I’ve had a lot of fun doing what I do, and I’ve learned a lot. For instance: Having traveled to more than 70 countries, I’ve found that people in every culture, no matter where they are, want pretty much the same things for their children and grandchildren. They want them to have enough food, clean water, adequate clothing and the opportunity to get an education. From our vantage point as Americans this may seem pretty straightforward, but in some cultures many of these things just aren’t obtainable.
And that brings me to another big thing I’ve learned. It’s amazing how lives can be derailed by the lack of something that seems inconsequential. Inconsequential, that is, until you think about it.
I’ve been traveling to South Africa since 1995 and love the people and country. But a casual conversation I had last year with a South African friend left me speechless! She mentioned that she’s working to provide sanitary pads for girls and to introduce a program that builds safe and clean facilities in the schools, so that girls can have a place of privacy and cleanliness when they need to take care of their bodies during their monthly cycle. She told me this program is dear to her heart, because the lack of such things makes approximately 30 to 40% of young girls in her country drop out of school. Girls use rags, bark and other unsafe materials during menstruation, she told me, adding that these materials contribute to the spread of disease. Not only that, once girls drop out of school, they become easy prey for older men who pay them for sex. Many become pregnant and end up with HIV/AIDS. There is little hope for these girls.
I was stunned. Girls dropping out of school because they can’t afford sanitary materials? But as I learned more, it made sense. A mere eight pads cost five dollars in South Africa—for many families, that would mean going without food. When you add the cultural discomfort about talking about monthly cycles, and how the resulting silence can leave girls ignorant about their bodies, it’s easy to see that this is a set-up for poor self-esteem, shame, abuse and disease.
I got to wondering: Was this just a problem in South Africa, or in other parts of the continent and the world, too? A little research showed me that it’s a problem in all of Africa—and in India, where 300 million girls cannot afford pads, and both lack clean facilities and educational programs about their bodies. Similar problems exist in Bosnia, Indonesia…and I could go on. But what to do? Meaning: How could I help?
Here’s my first step: I’m talking about the problem, to anyone who will listen. After that, I’m talking about it some more. As I do, I’m trying to make clear that there are plenty of groups trying to make a difference: non-governmental agencies (NGOs), the UN, even companies like P&G, which has created educational programs with input from local elders, built bathrooms, and donated free kits with pads for a year for each girl. All these organizations recognize that this is a global problem that threatens the ability of girls to become educated, and therefore their chances for a better life. And they’re all trying to put together solutions.
But most importantly, I am asking everyone to stop and think about what we take for granted—access to affordable sanitary materials, safe and clean facilities to meet our needs during our periods, and a culture that recognizes the importance of girls and their need for education. As individuals we can do something: We can talk about it. We can research NGOs that are making a difference, and we can contribute to their work. These girls living in these countries are our sisters, mothers, daughters, wives. A monthly period should not be the thing that brings their hopes and dreams to an end.
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