Most, if not all, women and girls have at one point carried their entire bag to the toilet to hide the fact that they’re on their periods. Perhaps, they’d slip their pads or tampons into their sleeves so as not to offend or alert the people around them of the fact that their bodies are experiencing a perfectly normal (albeit not strictly necessary) monthly biological process. Periods are still stigmatised. Period poverty is a term that has gained some traction in recent years, particularly in Scotland where the Scottish government has put into place ways to eradicate it. Period poverty refers to women and girls being unable to afford sanitary products, which in turn causes women to turn to toilet rolls, rags and cloths instead. Indeed, period poverty is even keeping girls out of school! This is why the Scottish government pledged to provide free sanitary products in every school, college and university, and in England there are movements to provide the same for girls there.
Further afield, period poverty and stigma are, unsurprisingly, also an issue. Not unlike women and girls in the UK who cannot afford sanitary products, women in many low- and middle income countries (LMIC) also resort to using rags, cloths, and in some cases animal skin or leaves to absorb menstrual blood. In many cases women and girls also lack safe and private (single sex) bathrooms and toilets, clean and running water, and soap to keep themselves clean and comfortable during their menstrual cycle. This often leads to girls dropping out of school, and women not working. Periods are not a very glamorous issue to talk about (not unlike many other issues that affect mainly women), but it is definitely a global health issue.
Discussing periods is often taboo in many LMIC where women on their periods are seen as ‘unclean’, and at times even shunned for the duration of their periods where they have to stay in unsanitary, cold and unsafe menstrual huts, where many women and children often end up dying. In many instances women and girls hold misconceptions and fears surrounding menarche (first period) and subsequent periods, with many harbouring fear of infertility or curses (and Sommer et al., 2014). A lack of access to proper hygiene during the menstrual cycle can lead to a higher risk of infections, and bodily odours can lead to further stigmatisation. Menarche can also have a mental health effect on girls, who often feel anxious and sad about a ‘loss of childhood’ once they have experienced their first period. Thus, beyond the physical issues that a lack of access to sanitary products, hygienic toilets and sanitation, and the risk of infection that comes with it, the stigmatisation of periods and the cultural associations, taboos and silence surrounding it can have a detrimental effect on mental health as well.
That is not to say that all hope is lost. Just like the community activists in the United Kingdom, there are many women in LMIC who are fighting to make menstruation and women’s health more accessible and acceptable to talk about and are fighting to end period poverty all around the world. NGOs such as Myna Mahila, which gained some more international recognition after the Duchess of Sussex’s involvement, and organisations such as Plan and the UN are also trying to play their part. Not unlike tackling the stigma of dementia in LMIC, it is important for us to understand the cultural contexts and aid local community activists where possible.
In Western feminism we talk an awful lot about ’empowerment’, but sometimes seem to forget that at the end of the battle for empowerment there is supposed to be power. For women to gain more power and influence in a truly more equitable society, it is imperative that women can get an education, take charge of their own lives and most importantly do not feel like prisoners in their own bodies. We have long known that once women are more educated, there is a decline in poverty, and once women are financially independent there is a decline in vulnerability to sex based violence. If we truly believe in empowerment for women, we will need to fight to remove the taboos and stigma surrounding menstruation and eliminate period poverty whether it occurs in Scotland or in India, the United States or Uganda. It’s not just a women’s rights issue — it’s a human rights and a global health issue. An issue that should, and hopefully will, be eliminated once and for all.