World Health Day 2018: Let’s end the taboo. Period.

Apr 6, 2018

Together, we can help to beat the stigma surrounding menstruation, campaign for better sanitary product provision for girls and women all over the world, and empower girls and women through training and education. Let’s end the taboo. Period.

Written by Helen Russell, Feed the Minds’ Regional Development and Community Engagement Coordinator in Scotland. 

This World Health Day, I would like to focus on an issue which I, Feed the Minds, and others are campaigning to make less taboo: periods. Menstruation can be a topic of revulsion and embarrassment for many – be that for men or women of all ages around the world.

As women, we are typically taught from a relatively young age, not to talk about menstrual bleeding; to be discreet and keep our ‘dirty’ little secret. Even my friends and I have mastered the art of smuggling sanitary products up our sleeves to avoid detection on our way to the bathroom, should it cause embarrassment to us or others. Other friends order sanitary towels and tampons online to avoid the embarrassment they feel about buying them in shops.

The stigma and taboo surrounding menstruation has been rife worldwide for centuries, with girls and women being told that they are ‘unclean’, ‘dirty’ or made to feel shame for this perfectly natural bodily function.

In some areas of Nepal, women are made to sleep in animal sheds during menstruation, without access to food or clean water which can in extreme cases lead to illness and even death. In Japan, some women are told they can’t be chefs because of the myth that menstruation affects taste. In India some girls miss out on school as they are told not to leave their homes when menstruating. In Burundi there is the belief amongst some that bathing near utensils when menstruating will cause family members to die.

Shame and embarrassment around menstruation is something that many women have been made to feel, be that inadvertently or explicitly. To add insult to injury, women in the UK are still subject to pay the ‘tampon tax’, a 5% charge on sanitary products seen as a ‘luxury product’ even though men’s razors (also a luxury product) are not taxed.

Laura Coryton, who is petitioning the government to implement the changes that they promised and suspend the 5% charge on sanitary products says:
“Not using sanitary products can lead to health risks, jeopardise maintaining a normal, professional or personal life, and result in public ridicule. Periods are no luxury. You can ‘opt-in’ to extravagance. You cannot choose to menstruate.” (Woman & Home: 5/02/2018).

When women don’t have access to sanitary products, this can make stigma and embarrassment worse. When I watched a BBC Scotland News expose on period poverty in Scotland, I was absolutely horrified to discover that some girls and women who use Food Banks have been forced to use rags and socks as they cannot afford to buy menstrual products. I was awed by Tricia’s bravery in speaking out about her experiences and so angered that she had to go through that in Scotland in 2017!

I am pleased that the Scottish Government are now funding the provision of sanitary towels and tampons for schools, colleges, universities and Food Banks. But Tricia’s story is just one of many in the UK, let alone the rest of the world where some women, who don’t have access to sanitary products, use rags, leaves and sticks.

UNICEF estimates that one in 10 school-age African girls does not attend school during menstruation. In Kenya, where we run a project with our local partner organisation, Ufanisi, this works out as girls missing on average 4.9 days of schools every month, leading to high school drop-out rates and absenteeism. Girls miss school, in part, to a lack of access to affordable sanitary products.

We are equipping women in Kenya with the knowledge and skills to produce affordable, environmentally friendly, reusable pads. Eight women are receiving tailoring training and in turn train other women to make these sanitary pads, allowing them to sell pads in independent outlets owned by the women to other women in their communities. The profits raised are put back into the cooperative, thus gaining additional livelihood security.

Ufanisi also run programmes to teach girls and women about menstrual health and hygiene in schools and in the community. We hope, through our work, to see a drop in school absenteeism, as girls are encouraged to value themselves and see that with access to sanitary products, life can continue as normal when menstruating.

For the past three-years in Nepal, where girls and women are still often segregated during menstruation, we have been working together with our local partner, Education, Training and Services for the Community (ETSC), to provide reproductive and menstrual information and education to girls and women in rural areas.

And, over the next 3 years, we hope to continue to address the root causes of poor attendance and school dropout among adolescent girls in Nepal, through supplementary, age appropriate education. In this project, adolescent girls would learn about menstrual health management, personal hygiene, sexual and reproductive health, child marriage and anti-trafficking. Career development and creative pursuits will also be incorporated to increase aspirations and self-confidence.

Together, we can help to beat the stigma surrounding menstruation, campaign for better sanitary product provision for girls and women all over the world, and empower girls and women through training and education. Let’s end the taboo. Period.

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