Why Menstruation Matters
Anna Fellay, The Unmentionables' Marketing and Communications Intern
Stigmas and myths about menstruation are global and diversified but follow a simple theme: periods are dirty and shameful. In India, some believe cooking food while menstruating will pollute it, touching idols will "defile them", pickles will rot at your touch (George, 2012). In Nepal, up to 95% of families practice "chaupadi" – isolating women during their periods, often in mud huts in the wild, as their presence is thought to bring bad luck– despite it being technically ruled illegal since 2005 (Barr and Klasing, 2016). These women have to go through the night in fear of attacks by wild animals and smoke inhalation from the fire keeping them warm, where temperatures can go below 1°C or 34°F in the winter. In Somalia, it is believed by some that women cannot "pray, fast, or go to the mosque" while on their periods as they are "unclean". Some of these myths lead to dangerous and unhygienic practices. For example, in Afghanistan, some avoid washing their vaginas when menstruating because they believe it will lead to infertility. Furthermore, the lack of affordable pads means many women have to use dirty rags, which they only clean at night, in secret. In Bolivia, young girls keep their used pads in their school bags in fear that menstrual blood would spread cancer if mixed with other trash. The secrecy and shame that surrounds periods have terrified young girls from accidently experiencing leaks in schools. On top of that, the lack of access to proper intimate products means leaks are even more likely.
Periods and Education
While periods are an inconvenience for the majority of women in the West, they stand as an obstacle between many women and education. In Sierra Leone, over 20% of girls miss school during their periods; in Nepal and Afghanistan, 30% miss school at those times; almost 25% of Indian girls drop out when they start menstruating, and the ones that stay in school will still miss an average of 5 days a month (Perczynska and Preiss, 2014). Percynska and Preiss (2014) argue that this is due to a combination of factors: cultural stigmas that harbor shame, lack of period products, lack of toilet access, and fear of leaks. These also intertwine. Cultural stigmas enforce secrecy around periods that are considered shameful, which also lead to little awareness for accessible period products and an intense fear of leaks in class.
Periods are uncomfortable, painful, and inconvenient enough already despite having access to intimate health products and clean toilets. Imagine having to sit in class all day, with no adequate pads or tampons, just dirty rags, and having to use dirty and overcrowded latrines or back alleys to change. This is why many girls, once they begin having their periods, choose to drop out of school. According to WaterAid, over 800 million women between the ages of 15-49 have their period on any given day. Yet, 1.25 billion women do not have proper access to a clean and safe toilet facility (Pujol-Mazzini, 2017). In Nigeria, there is one toilet per 600 children. In fact, only 45% of schools in developing countries have a toilet at all (Perczynska and Preiss, 2014). Limited access to safe, lockable bathrooms also put women more at risk for sexual violence when they seek out places to wash and change in privacy (Sommer, 2017). A report by the World Health Organization states that in developing countries, one-fifth of health care facilities don’t have improved toilets and sanitation facilities, while one-third of the world's population does not have adequate sanitation in their own home. When women and girls do have access to a toilet, it is unlikely that they are able to have "privacy, locking doors, lights, soap, water, and enough space to change sanitary cloths and wash and dry them as needed" in order for them to change safely, cleanly, and with dignity (Schechtman).
Girls dropping out of school at such a young age results in overspill consequences. Research shows that a woman's future earnings grow with every year of primary education (Psacharopoulos). Receiving adequate education can change a girl's life in more than one way. Statistics suggest that educated women marry later, have fewer children, healthier children, and are less likely to experience sexual violence (Perczynska and Preiss, 2014). Low education traps young women in the poverty cycle, with low job opportunities, and ultimately more dependent on a husband, which consequently hinders women empowerment and independence in the region. Furthermore, the unfortunate truth is that the girls who do not believe in harmful myths around menstruation, that harbor shame and unhygienic habits, are the ones whose mothers are educated.
Periods and the Community
When menstruation hinders girls from finishing their education, it is not only their social status and opportunities that take a hit: the whole community is impacted. As mentioned above, research suggest that educated women have fewer, as well as healthier, children. This allows for a higher standard of living per household due to the fewer mouths to feed. A higher number of educated women can benefit the country's economy as a whole: "for every 1% increase in the proportion of women with secondary education, a country's annual per capita income grows by 0.3%" (Perczynska and Preiss, 2014). The same research argues that "closing the unemployment gap between adolescent girls and boys would result in 1.2% increase in GDP in a year" (Perczynska and Preiss, 2014). Ultimately, better access to proper information about menstrual hygiene can empower girls, women, and the community as a whole.
So what are the solutions for the moment? Such a deep cultural and social change will not happen overnight. In order to get rid of the harmful myths surrounding periods, we must tackle the lack of education and information that allows said myths to grow and spread. A basic yet all-too-real problem hinders too many girls from education: access to adequate toilets. In Bettiah, India, a teacher strived to make a change for the young girls at school. He turned an old latrine into a basic incinerator with the cost of 200 rupees, or less than USD $4 at the time. This way, girls could burn their dirty cloths or period products when at school (George, 2012). A solution far from perfect, but a step closer to helping these girls from seeing no way to attend class when on their periods.
Find out how The Unmentionables is tackling the stigma around periods and showing how #menstruationmatters in the following days! Not only will you get a glimpse of the Team currently on one of our biggest distribution trips to date, you'll find out all about the products we distribute and the people we distribute them to. Donate today to help us bring #dignitythroughhygiene!
George, Rose. "The Taboo of Menstruation." The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 Dec. 2012. Web. 01 July 2017.
Klasing, Amanda, and Heather Barr. "Stigma Around Periods Should End. Period." Human Rights Watch. HRW, 12 Dec. 2016. Web. 01 July 2017.
Perczynska, Ola, and Danielle Preiss. "Not Just a Girls' Problem: The Economic Impact of Menstrual Shame." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 30 Oct. 2014. Web. 01 July 2017.
Psacharopoulos, George. "Investment Returns to Education in Hong Kong." Investment Returns to Education in Hong Kong (n.d.): n. pag. World Bank Resources. World Bank, Sept. 2002. Web.
Pujol-Mazzini, Anna. "For Refugee Women, Periods a Dangerous, Shameful Time." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 08 Mar. 2017. Web. 01 July 2017.
Schechtman, Director of Policy and Advocacy, WaterAid, Lisa. "Why Tackling the Stigma around Menstruation Is Key to Gender Equality." World Economic Forum. World Economic Forum, n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.
Sommer, Marni. "How Periods Make Life Complicated for Women and Girl Refugees." Women & Girls. News Deeply, 08 June 2017. Web. 01 July 2017.