Let’s talk about menstruation – end of a stigma!

It all started with a recommendation on my Netflix account: “Period. End of sentence”, an Academy award-winning, short movie about rural, Indian girls and boys who think menstruation is a disease to be ashamed of. The beauty of this documentary is in the empowerment of women that learn how to use a new machine to make low-cost sanitary pads and strive towards financial independence. I was mind-blown by this documentary and I immediately started googling about the stigma surrounding menstruation in the world. One particular topic caught my attention: the negative correlation between menstruation and girls’ school attendance and success.

Literacy is improving worldwide but erasing inequalities between the sexes is still challenging. Of the 750 million illiterate people in the world, 63% are women (UNESCO {1}. To achieve gender equality, it is important that girls can attend and reach their full potential in schools. Most studies that explored reasons for school non-attendance among girls, identified the geographical environment, financial and/or social issues as key factors. However, inadequate options for menstrual hygiene recently received attention as a barrier to girls’ education in developing countries. According to WaterAid and UNICEF {2} 1 out of 3 girls in South Asia miss 2-4 days of school days every month during their periods. Similarly, multiple studies in several countries in Africa also showed that girls could miss up to 4 consecutive days of school every month because of their periods, amounting to  20% of the annual school time {3,4,5,6}.

Because of the taboos surrounding menstruation in many parts of the world, there is a significant lack of health education resources available to people, even in occidental countries. It may come as a surprise to Westerners, but girls and young women in several developed countries are also missing school due to lack of access to sanitary products. According to an independent study by Always {7} this issue – referred to as period poverty (#endperiodpoverty) – keeps 1 out of 5 girls out of school. A recent survey of 5000 women and girls in New Zealand by KidsCan {8} found that: 30% of under 17 years old had missed school or work due to lack of sanitary care and 53% had found it difficult to afford sanitary items at some point (prioritizing food items). Knowing that a woman will spend about 22,000$ (18,000£) in period related products over a lifetime {9}, some of them just can’t afford it (1 in 10 girls according to Plan International UK), ending up creating period pads from toilet paper or newspaper or by simply staying home. One possible solution would be to decrease the price of sanitary pads/tampons. Several countries have a sale tax on feminine care products similar to “luxury products”. As examples: Sweden (27% tax), Argentina (21%), Germany (19%) France and UK (5%); while Australia, Canada, Ireland and 12 states of the USA are completely tax exempted {10}. The abolition of this unfair and discriminatory tax would constitute a great improvement towards the decrease in the gender gap due inaccessibility to education.

In addition, I still believe that we could and should go further and consider feminine menstrual protections such as toilet paper and soap, a basic right that should be provided for free everywhere. All countries should follow the example set by Scotland (full report here {11}) that provides free and universal access to menstrual products in all schools, colleges and universities. Similarly, two years after, New York City (USA) became the first city in the world to implement free tampons and pads in all public schools (also in shelters and prisons), the class attendance rate increased by 3% in their pilot program {12}. Unfortunately, very few studies have focused on this phenomenon in developed countries and there is a real need of large-scale studies with significant results to alert lawmakers.

Education is an effective way to improve girls’ self-worth, health, productivity and to foster participation in civil societies; however, routinely being absent profoundly affects their academic potential and negatively influences their future life choices.

Another way to fight back is simply to freely talk about menstruation because it is this lack of knowledge that fuels myths which exclude and humiliate women. We cannot passively accept that a natural, biological process holds girls back from harnessing their full potential and realizing their dreams and aspirations. So, here is what I do: I openly talk about it (“I have my period, that’s why I look a bit tired, thanks for asking”), I don’t hide my tampon box at home (even if I have guests), I explain to my nieces and nephews, the biology behind it, I sign petitions (change.org)…It might not be much but I strongly believe that it is the first step to overcome this stigma. Talking about it encourages awareness campaigns, alerts lawmakers and eventually leads to important changes that will successfully eradicate the educational gender gap.

To go beyond:

  • The Curse – Karen Houppert
  • Period Power – Nadya Okamoto
  • Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity – Jennifer Weiss-Wolf