Breaking the Bloody Taboo

Today is May 28—Menstrual Hygiene Day. Some would scoff at the notion that we need a specific day to remember women get their periods once a month. What’s the big deal, right? We all know it happens, so why even talk about it?

In Kenya, girls can miss between 3-7 days of school each month because of their periods.

83% of girls in Burkina Faso and 77% in Niger have nowhere to change their sanitary menstrual materials at school.

70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.

This is why we need to talk.

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/

Why break the Bloody Taboo.

Educational Absences. Across the developing world lack of appropriate and adequate sanitation, particular menstrual hygiene management (MHM), prevents girls from attending school. In some countries, females are prohibited from going to school, traveling or preparing food during menstruation, as is the case for 89% of girls and women in rural Nepal. Even if the community allows girls to participate in such day-to-day activities, many times this does not translate into practice. One reason for this is that girls often cannot afford sanitary products and feel uncomfortable going to school without them. As a result, they end up staying at home and missing crucial days of education. The Forum for African Women Educationists (FAWE) of Uganda calculated that to cover their sanitary protection needs at market prices, girls have to find a way of justifying a recurrent expenditure of at least Sh 2,000 (~US$1). Given that the average household income is Sh 20,000 a month in Uganda, this is an unrealistic purchase to make for many families, most of whom have more than one daughter with menstrual hygiene needs. Some girls and women have gotten into the practice of using sponges, newspapers, old rags, and bark to substitute. Apart from such contraptions being unsanitary and disease-bearing, they leak and are not protective. A Tanzanian woman remembers, “I didn’t know what was happening or what to do to manage menstruation. I used cotton wool, pages from an exercise book, leaves from trees. I suffered much embarrassment at school because I leaked and stained my uniform” (pg. 7). The humiliation that comes along with these instances forces, on average, 20% of girls to leave school when they menstruate. We have learned that education is the mechanism towards global development and female empowerment. However, girls cannot take advantage of educational opportunities if the taboo surrounding menstruation is holding them back and making them miss valuable time spent in the classroom.

“We’re not talking about rocket ships; we’re talking about sanitary pads… Yet they both have the same effect. They take you places.”—Marni Sommer, Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University

Community Alienation. Period shaming is a reality for many females in the developing world. Oftentimes menstruating women and girls are wrongly considered to be contaminated, dirty, and impure — the painful stigma leads girls to suffer from social exclusion and community humiliation. This societal phenomenon is found in dozens of cultures across the globe:

120315-SouthSudan-Magwi-school-WASH-aidan-dockery-148
Many communities around the world have yet to accept the message of this poster — that menstruation is normal.
  • In India, a menstruating woman is not allowed to touch cows.
  • In Islamic Tradition, menstruating women are not allowed to pray, touch the Koran, nor observe fasting tradition.
  • In rural Venezuela, menstruating women are forced to sleep in a special hut for the duration of their menstruation.
  • In rural Ghana, a woman is forbidden to enter a dwelling with a man or cook him food while she is menstruating.
  • In Kenya, women in the semi-nomadic Masai region are not allowed to enter goat pens or milk cows while they menstruate, for fear they will contaminate the animal. They are also not permitted to consume animal products.
  • In remote areas of Nepal, a woman is not allowed to interact with anyone during her menses; she is banished to a special clay hut in the wilderness until her period is over. While Nepal has officially made this treatment illegal in 2003, it is still practiced in rural areas.
  • In many Southeast Asian communities, menstruating girls are not permitted to use the same water facilities as the rest of the community for fear of contamination.
Sources: Femme International (Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council, UNICEF, New York Times, The Huffington Post)

Health Concerns. I can only imagine the discomfort of using bark, paper, or used rags instead of sanitary pads during menstruation. Apart from discomfort however, these substitutes also pose a variety of serious health risks. Poor protection and inadequate washing facilities to clean the rags or reusable pads increase susceptibility to infection in the genital area, which regularly cause reproductive deficiencies and even death. In communities where female genital mutilation is predominant (check out my blog post on FMG here), blood clots resulting from FGM surgery in addition to the lack of menstrual hygiene management can bring forth life-threatening health issues such as hemorrhages, shock, and septicemia.

Women and girls’ experiences of menstruation

“During winter it
is very difficult, we have to sleep along [during menstruation], and there
is not enough warm clothes at night. Many times I have to ask father for a
quilt.” — Girl, Nepal

“When you start getting periods… our mother takes us to a separate room and start advising you that you have to keep it a secret and no one should know that you are in menstrual periods. So when a drop [of blood] passes through you, they say, ‘Ah, she is a namagwatale,’ meaning she is a very dirty person… So it is shameful.” — Woman, Uganda

“You can find that a girl has only one underwear and two pieces of cloth for using during menses. This makes it difficult for them to come to school during menses.” — Teacher, Tanzania

“We are eager to build up our education and have a good reputation in the society, so we don’t like to be absent from schools each month because of unavailability of the school [water, sanitation and hygiene] facility.” — Schoolgirl, Afghanistan

“How can I wash blood in the toilet? The drain that leads out is not covered. My father and brothers are in the courtyard.” — Female teenager, India

“I am always changing my soiled napkin at an interval of eight to ten hours as there are hardly any facilities available to change my pads and it is embarrassing to ask anyone to use their bathroom for said purpose.” — Female NGO field worker, India

How to break The Bloody Taboo

More and more NGOs have realized the importance of menstrual hygiene management as not only a women’s issue, but a world issue. Organizations like Path, AFRIpads (which has already produced more than 500,000 pads in total), and Femme International have made impressive strides to tackle MHM. They have all realized the importance and sheer necessity of doing so. Despite increasing efforts, there are still many obstacles to overcome. One problem NGOs face when addressing MHM is cost. Sanitary pads and tampons are expensive to produce and even pricier to purchase — however, this problem is slowly finding a solution through people like Arunchalam Muruganantham, a social entrepreneur who designed a machine to help his wife and women like her make low-cost sanitary products. To date, he has provided machines to 1300 villages in 23 Indian states. Innovators like Muruganantham are the solution to cost concerns. A more multilayered and therefore more difficult issue to solve is the culture of silence around menstruation. Periods, while a natural occurrence for 50% of the world population, are still a taboo topic to discuss in many countries of the world. We all know it exists, but many of us prefer not to think about menstruation and the implications it has on all women, especially  those in the developing world.

“There is still squeamishness around menstruation that affects most women across the world. This creates a twofold challenge for organisations wishing to improve menstrual hygiene: on one hand, it is hard to convince partners in developed countries to talk about supporting menstrual hygiene initiatives. On the other, it is difficult to convince women and girls in developing countries to take up support because of the stigma of coming forward.” — The Guardian

Nikita Azad with #HappyToBleed and the Hindu Sabarimala temple in Kerala
Nikita Azad with #HappyToBleed and the Hindu Sabarimala temple in Kerala

In recent years, people around the globe have attempted to address this taboo around menstruation. Most notably, student Nikita Azad, an English major at Government College for Girls in Patiala in Punjab, started the successful #HappyToBleed campaign in 2015. Initially, Azad launched the campaign in response to the Hindu Sabarimala temple’s refusal to admit women aged between 10 and 50 (whether or not they have their periods) on grounds of menstruating women being traditionally considered ritually impure in Hinduism. #HappyToBleed has now evolved into a large-scale public outcry to eliminate period shaming and menstrual taboos as a whole.

“We bleed. Accept it and deal with it.” — Nikita Azad

This is only the start. More and more people like Azad are speaking up for women around the world (click here to learn what men are doing to help) and addressing MHM as a female empowerment issue, global health concern, and human rights matter. This is serious. This is real. This taboo needs to end. Period.

EcoPads Australia is a social startup centered on (1) environmental protection, (2) female education, and (3) women's empowerment. The venture makes cloth pads, which are more sustainable and create jobs for women in developing countries. For each pad someone buys, the startup donates one to a girl or woman in need. This is a truly multifaceted approach to bettering the world and is worth supporting. Click here if you would like to learn more and donate to the crowdfunding campaign.
EcoPads Australia is a social startup centered around (1) environmental protection, (2) female education, and (3) women’s empowerment. The venture makes cloth pads, which are more environmentally sustainable and create jobs for women in developing countries. For each purchased pad, the startup donates one to a girl or woman in need. This is a truly multifaceted approach to global development and is worth supporting. Click here if you would like to learn more or donate to the crowdfunding campaign.
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