De-stigmatising a natural body function: let’s talk about menstruation!

On May 28th we celebrate menstrual hygiene day to raise awareness on the importance of menstrual hygiene management and to change negative social norms about menstruation around the world.  Why is it the 28th of May you may wonder? The answer is simple: The average menstruation cycle lasts 28 days, during which girls and women have their period on average for 5 days. Menstruation is still considered a taboo topic all over the world even though it is a normal biological process that is key to maintaining the reproductive health of women. 

The Stigma around Menstruation

Menstruation is not openly discussed and dealt with secretly all over the world.

Lack of education on this matter, however, has fatal consequences. Women and girls worldwide face numerous challenges in managing their menstruation. In many cultures, they are perceived as dirty and impure while menstruating. This leads to many restrictions for girls and women when they have their period. For instance, drinking milk, preparing food, interacting with people or refraining from performing religious rituals are just some examples. Women are forbidden to bathe or cleanse themselves properly during these days, which increases the threat posed to their health due to lack of menstrual hygiene. Furthermore, they also are afraid to go to school or work since often these places lack facilities like clean water, soap, and washrooms.

In addition to exclusion from social, cultural and religious activities, hygiene sanitary products can be unavailable or unaffordable. Globally, a minimum of 500 million women experiences period poverty every month. Menstruation products are extremely difficult to access because of their high cost even though they are a vital necessity. They are still perceived as luxury products and in many countries, they are subjected to the value-added tax (VAT), also known as the “pink tax”.

The importance of menstrual hygiene

The lack of education on this matter and the cultural shame attached to menstruation leads to the use of unhealthy ways to collect menstrual waste. Girls and women are forced to use old clothes, rags and sawdust as an alternative to sanitary hygiene products. Clothes used as sanitary napkins are often washed without detergents and dried indoors, out of shame and fear of superstitions related to menstruation. This often means that the clothes remain damp, which can lead to infections. Period poverty and forced poor menstrual hygiene can pose various physical health risks such as reproductive and urinary tract infections, high incidents of genital rashes and a high risk for cervical cancer.

Additionally, many lack access to safe toilet and handwashing facilities with clean water. According to UNICEF, 2.3 billion people lack basic sanitation services and in Least Developed Countries only 27% of the population has a handwashing facility with water and soap at home. Managing periods at home is, therefore, a major challenge for women and adolescent girls who lack these basic facilities.

An important issue that is often overlooked is menstrual hygiene management in emergency situations, conflict-affected areas or in the aftermath of natural disasters. In such situations, the usual lifestyle of affected individuals changes and they are confronted with additional stress that can worsen their physical and psychological well-being. Provision of fundamental aid such as shelter, food, clean water and medicines is prioritised, however other needs such as safe menstrual hygiene management, the lack of which can have a profound psychosocial impact, are often neglected.

Discriminatory cultural norms, lack of education, limited access to hygienic menstrual products and poor sanitation infrastructure undermine the educational opportunities, health and overall social status of women and girls around the world. As a result, millions are kept from reaching their full potential and are denied basic human rights.

The Link to Child Marriage

The cultural shame attached to menstruation stops girls and women from going to school and work every day in many parts of the world. This means that girls on average miss 5 days of school a month because of difficulties in managing the bleeding and social stigma around menstruation. For example, the absence rate in school in Nepal is 41% and in Kenya even 86% for menstruating girls. Most schools do not include facilities to assist girls during their period. This kind of absenteeism leads to them missing out on lessons and achieving poor grades, which can contribute to parents questioning the value of girls’ education.

Schools can also become a hostile environment for girls entering puberty. They may face sexual harassment on their way to or from school or from their peers or teachers. Parents who fear that school is unsafe for their unmarried daughters may view marriage as an acceptable solution to protect them and their family’s honour. Young girls who do not receive an education are more likely to enter child marriages and experience an early pregnancy, malnourishment, domestic violence, and pregnancy complications as a result. Research has shown that when girls have access to appropriate sanitary products and facilities, and they understand what is happening to their bodies, they are more likely to stay in school and out of marriage.

How to Break the Stigma?

The first step is to normalize menstruation. It is a natural and healthy body function and not something to be ashamed or afraid of. To achieve menstrual equity and break the silence around menstruation we need to strengthen education on this topic as well as improve availability, affordability, and access to sanitary items, particularly in schools and workplaces. We also need to improve the sanitation and hygiene of washing facilities and give women a safe way to change and dispose of soiled products. Educating girls and boys on menstruation at an early age at home and school promotes healthy habits and breaks stigmas around this natural process. Young boys also benefit from menstrual hygiene education. 

Menstrual Hygiene Day is a global advocacy platform that brings together the voices and actions of non-profits, government agencies, individuals, the private sector and the media to promote good menstrual health and hygiene (MHH) for all women and girls. It especially engages decision-makers to increase the political priority and catalyse action for menstrual hygiene at global, national, and local levels with the goal of ending period poverty by 2030. For that to happen we need to work together and challenge social norms, talk openly about menstruation and spread awareness and education. 

Let’s break the silence around menstrual hygiene together!


 Want to find out more about this issue? Here are some useful resources:

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