Personal Essay: Debunking Global Stigma around menstruation

This orginially appeared on the Cora Blog.

We’ve all had those moments when we feel bloated, tired and sore thanks to our monthly visitor, the period. No matter where we live or what walk of life we come from, we know the discomfort that often accompanies our menstrual cycle. In my experience in the US, women face these feelings of discomfort, but they also feel frustrated at the inconvenience of it all. The same is true for women in many corners of the globe. Imagine, however, that those feelings of discomfort and frustration went much further. Imagine that your period prevented you from being able to complete important tasks like going to school or work.

Femme International, a nonprofit focusing on education and empowerment in Kenya and Tanzania, says it best: “Menstruation is a globally shared experience among all women - women everywhere intimately understand what it is like to get her first period, and all women share similar symptoms” (“The Issue – Femme International” 2017). The fact that women, no matter where they are, have this common thread is a magnificent thing. In thinking about this, I began to wonder: what if we delve a bit deeper into the experience of women around the world? If we better understand their lived experiences with their periods, perhaps we might be able to support each other a little bit more and break down some of the terrible stigmas that surround women and menstruation.

In places like Ghana and Venezuela, women are often relegated to their homes while they’re menstruating. In Ghana, many husbands do not want their wives to cook while they’re on their period for fear of contamination (“The Issue – Femme International” 2017). One expert in the field said menstruating girls are often considered “dirty” or “impure” (O’Hagan 2015).  These types of negative perceptions exist in many areas of the world and have been around for hundreds of years. These stigmas impact the social experiences of women and girls, but they extend to other things, like education, as well.

In one report, a young girl from Tanzania recounted her first experience with her monthly visitor: “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” (O’Hagan 2015). Additionally, in Kenya, because girls do not receive adequate education about their menstrual cycles, and because they lack access to appropriate sanitation products, they miss an average of four days per month which averages out to 20% of the entire school year (“The Issue – Femme International” 2017).

While many places still incorporate shaming and exclusion into their cultural beliefs around menstruation, many others are making great strides. In Nepal, while the exclusionary sleeping practice mentioned above still takes place in rural areas, the government has made such activities officially illegal (O’Hagan 2015). There are also a variety of international organizations, like Femme International, that are attempting to educate people on the beauty and natural importance of menstrual cycles, while also tackling the issue of sanitation and hygiene. Internationally, there is now a “Menstrual Hygiene Day,” the vision of which is “To create a world in which every woman and girl can manage her menstruation in a hygienic way - wherever she is - in privacy, safety, and with dignity. The overall goal of these initiatives is to surmount the’ stigmas and misperceptions that surround this shared experience to empower women to live with their periods in a freer, more socially-accepted way.

To help with the physical challenges that accompany menstruation, many organizations have started to distribute reusable sanitary pads in low-resource countries. Afripads, one such organization, sells and distributes reusable pads to help girls in east Africa overcome the so-called “Week of Shame” that prevents girls from attending school (“The Issue - What We Do - AFRIpads” 2017). According to UNICEF, 1 in 10 school-aged African girls drop out of school simply because they do not have access to proper sanitary resources for this very natural and very important process (“The Issue - What We Do - AFRIpads” 2017). Cora does similar work, but interestingly, they work to create manufacturing jobs in these low-resource countries so they strive to address multiple economic and social challenges. These types of organizations understand that much of the stigma behind menstruation stems from the lack of physical products to quell the signs and symptoms; thus, distribution of sanitary napkins is seen as a way to eradicate the stigma in many communities.

Another organization, Ruby Cup, has a similar mission. Using a buy one, give one model similar to Toms, Ruby Cup works to debunk harmful stigmas while also encouraging girls to view their cycles as a source of pride and power: “Our Menses, Our Pride” (“Ruby Cup Social Mission” 2017). As an added bonus, many of these projects hold environmental sustainability near and dear, so not only are they helping to overcome some of the challenges girls face, but they are working toward saving our planet for the next generation of powerful young women!

Here is a list of some organizations that are dedicated to eradicating stigmas and distributing resources:

Courtney Tucker’s background is in international development, with specific emphasis on community-led projects that support women and children. She’s currently living in central Uganda and working with a small group of women who are living with HIV/AIDS. She enjoys cross-cultural exchange and believes there is much to be learned from sharing and growing with women of the world.

Photo Credit: Huffington Post Canada

lindsay vancantfort