When Amrita Saigal's grandmother was a young girl growing up in 1930s India, she missed school for a week every month, for reasons that would puzzle most women around the world.
During those weeks, she also slept in a separate outhouse, and was not allowed to cook or visit the temple for prayer. The reason? Menstruation—considered a cultural stigma—forced her and other young women like her to temporarily remove themselves from society, and from their daily routines.
Decades later, Saigal, a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Business School, said she can't imagine dropping everything in her life for a week every month. But in many parts of rural India today, the monthly period continues to be a widespread reason for why thousands of girls miss school.
It's also why Saigal has launched her own entrepreneurial crusade to change that.
"Now there's not as much stigma, but women still don't have access to safe, hygienic sanitary pads—something you and I take for granted," Saigal said. Instead, women use bark, mud, or pieces of old saris for makeshift protection. The result manifests itself in unexpected ways, she added.
"Girls fall behind so much at school that many of them end up dropping out completely," she said.
The lack of sanitary pads cause 23 percent of adolescent girls to drop out of school, according to a 2011 survey conducted by AC Nielsen, a market research firm. The research, commissioned by the Indian government, also found that only 12 percent of women use sanitary pads, with the rest using makeshift materials.