Menstrual Health and the Problem with Menstrual Stigma

“Aunt Flo. On the Rag. The Curse.” According to an international survey conducted in 2015 by the period app Clue along with the International Women's Health Coalition, there are 5,000 euphemisms used around the world for the words “menstruation” or “period.” While some of these terms may be funny, they also have a more somber side, because they reinforce the idea that menstruation is connected with shame. For as long as women have been menstruating, periods have largely been taboo, and a source of humiliation and oppression. It's no wonder, then, that so many slang terms are used. But menstruation is a natural process, occuring in the bodies of half of the world's population. Why is menstrual taboo a big problem, and what is being done to fight this stigma?

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Globally, the stigma of menstruation is perpetrated by cultural taboos, discrimination, lack of education, silence and period poverty (the inability to access/afford feminine hygiene products). For instance, although Nepal criminalized the use of menstrual huts in 2017 after deaths had occurred, the practice of isolating menstruating women and girls continues. Instead of being banned to a remote hut, separate areas of a house or community are reserved for menstruating females, who may not have contact with other people or animals, prepare food, touch books, etc., due to the belief that menstruating females are impure. Countless girls miss school while menstruating, due both to taboos and to an inability to access feminine hygiene products. According to the humanitarian organization Plan International, 28% of girls in Uganda miss school when they are menstruating, and 70% of girls in Malawi miss one to three days of school a month. This all too often results in falling behind, increasing the chances of dropping out of school and falling victim to child marriage. In rural India, it is estimated that 20% of girls leave school after getting their first period. Girls not obtaining a high school education also impacts a country's economy. According to the World Bank, an increase in secondary education by girls increases a country's gross domestic product as well as its annual growth rate.

Menstrual health and equity are major factors in gender equality, a situation acknowledged by the UN Human Rights Council in 2014. Integrating menstrual health into programs for sexual and reproductive health and hygiene, sanitation and clean water is an important step in achieving SDGs 3 (Good Health and Well-Being), 4 (Quality Education), 5 (Gender Equality) and 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation). Last September, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling upon states to “address the widespread stigma and shame surrounding menstruation and menstrual hygiene by ensuring access to factual information thereon, addressing the negative social norms around the issue and ensuring universal access to hygienic products and gender-sensitive facilities, including disposal options for menstrual products.” Note that not only does this resolution call upon states to address the physical challenges of menstruation (obtaining, using and disposing of menstrual products), but also the societal challenges (stigma, social norms and education). This resolution and its wording provide substantial ammunition for advocacy.
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Access to menstrual education and hygiene products is not only a problem in developing countries. According to Plan International, 61% of girls surveyed in Ireland have missed school due to their periods, 43% had no idea what to do when their period first started and 50% have struggled to access sanitary products due to cost. Similarly, 45% of girls surveyed in Scotland reported using toilet paper, socks and newspaper to replace menstrual products, which they were unable to afford. In 2018, the Scottish government became the first country worldwide to provide free menstrual pads in schools and colleges in an effort to ban period poverty, and the UK government announced a campaign in March 2019 to end period poverty globally by 2030.

National Public Radio (NPR) referred to 2015 as “The Year of the Period.” Indeed, it seems to have been a watershed year regarding menstruation. The words “menstruation” and “period” appeared more frequently than ever before in news and social media, with prominent hashtags such as #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult. Period tracking apps were suddenly everywhere. And although Kenya had, as the first country in the world, already abolished sales tax for menstrual hygiene products in 2004, Canada followed in 2015, receiving much attention and leading to protests for other countries to follow. Kiran Gandhi discovered at the start of the 2015 London Marathon that her period had arrived, and decided to run free flowing, both a political statement and a decision of comfort and necessity. Pictures of this went global, eliciting many positive reactions.

Writer and activist Jennifer Weiss-Wolf first became aware of period poverty in 2015, and began writing and campaigning for equitable menstruation policy in the US. This led to articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post, bringing the idea to lawmakers, and to co-founding (with Laura Strausfeld) Period Equity, which is the first US legal and policy concern dedicated to menstrual access, affordability and safety. Her experiences and lessons learned are detailed in the book, Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity. To quote Weiss-Wolf: “Menstrual equality is a gateway issue for feminists. In order to have a fully equitable and participatory society, we must have laws and policies that ensure menstrual products are safe and affordable and available for those who need them.” Period Equity has brought the issue of the so-called “tampon tax” to the forefront in the US. Although there is not a specific tax on feminine hygiene products, they are taxed as “luxury items” and not necessities, and are thus not exempt from sales tax, ranging from 4 to 10 percent. Contrast this with some of the “necessary” items which are exempt: Viagra and lip balm! To date, the majority of US states still tax feminine hygiene products, but legislation to change that has been proposed in many of these. In addition to forwarding policy regarding the “tampon tax”, Weiss-Wolf focuses on economics and equity issues regarding menstruation, particularly in groups where menstruation presents a barrier to participation in society. Homeless women, girls in developing countries and female inmates all struggle to access menstrual products. In 2017, the US Federal Bureau of Prisons finally implemented the policy that tampons and pads be provided for free to women prisoners. Until then, these items had been sold to those prisoners who could afford them, often at higher prices than retail. There was a commonly held perception that these items were luxury items, and that prisoners should not be pampered. Period Equity also promotes the idea that if menstrual products are as freely available as toilet paper in public bathrooms and schools, the way menstruation is viewed will change radically, and the organization has  been sucessful in getting New York City to pass laws to provide menstrual products in schools and homeless shelters.

We have come a long way already in the last few years in understanding the damage that menstruation stigma causes and taking steps to combat it. Because we will not have gender equality as long as we have this stigma in society, it is important for each of us to speak up and to take action; accept this no longer. Each of us is an activist: whether a writer, musician, academic, business woman, reader or social media fanatic. My mother heart breaks when I think of the young girls who are shunned, frightened and placed in danger, not understanding what is happening to them during menstration, or why. Or those without proper materials to manage their periods, suffering embarassment and missing out on education. But my woman heart is angry. Angry enough to talk, take action, make periods be seen as the natural occurrence that they are, and not a reason to deny girls and women equality in any aspect in life.

There is often a defining moment that makes one an acitivist. For Kiran Gandhi, that moment was running the 2015 London Marathon with a free flowing period. Do yourself a favor: watch and listen to Kiran speaking about ending menstruation stigma at Women Deliver 2016. I guarantee you'll watch it more than once. 

Why I Ran 26 Miles Bleeding Freely on My Period video

Why I Ran 26 Miles Bleeding Freely on My Period


Getting Involved: Actions clubs can take to fight menstrual stigma and period poverty

  1. Help create period-friendly schools – Talk to teachers and administrators where you live, encouraging them to educate youth about menstruation. Urge them to provide menstrual hygiene products/facilities in the school washrooms.
  2. Donate menstrual products – Wherever you live, there is a need for safe, effective menstrual hygiene products. Consider local homeless shelters, schools, or organizations that are already established and trying to meet this need. Organizations such as PERIOD.orgGirls Helping Girls. Period., Racket and Period Equity use donations for providing menstrual products for girls and women in need, menstrual health education and supporting policy reform.
  3. Support legislation to end the “tampon tax” where you live.
  4. Partner with companies to make menstrual products available.
  5. Have a club tea or cocktail party, where all attendees bring menstrual hygiene products to donate to a local shelter, school or refugee center. You'll be surprised at how much educating happens during the event!



Girls' Globe - Voices of women and girls around the world!: Action Time: Menstrual Hygiene Management in Uganda

Plan International, Ireland: We Need to Talk. Period. Lifting the Barriers to Girls' Education

Reuters: Women use 5,000 euphemisms to ease pain of talking about periods

J. Chaaban and W. Cunningham, authors: World Bank Policy Research Working Paper: Measuring the Economic Gain of Investing in Girls The Girl Effect Dividend

J. Weiss-Wolf: Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity




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