Rethinking periods as a fundamental human right

We may wonder, what is the issue with a period? Most certainly, either as a man or woman of 21st century coming from any developed country, our adolescent school times were quite similar- hormones burst all around, body and mind transform to adult one, boys turn masculine and girls get their first periods. We all went through some challenging times in relation to the family, friends or teachers, but most importantly, the puberty did not stop the majority of us from attending the school. Especially, girls, we have our cramps and swinging moods, but it was not an excuse to drop out of the school during these messy days. Basic menstrual products, such as tampons and pads are provided by our mothers, family or friends at the very beginnings. Then coming to school, where clean toilets and privacy are secured, so that everybody can take care of their business whenever is needed to. Such a banal thing. Sadly, not every girl and woman has access to the same support and resources.

Period… Unsaid. Unacknowledged. Unknown.

Despite the fact that 800 million girls and women worldwide menstruate every day, yet menstruation remains obscured in silence and taboos. This lack of information perpetuates the stigma that´s harming women´s health and education. A recent International Women´s Health Coalition and Clue app survey of 90.000 women from 190 countries found that in some countries, close to half of the respondents felt they did not have sufficient education or information about starting their period. Survey highlights the countries with the highest percentage of respondents who felt they have received adequate education on starting their period: Finland (94%), Denmark (93%), and Japan (92%). In the contrary, countries where participants felt insufficiently informed in this respect: India (61%), Ukraine (41%), Russia (25%).

The survey further revealed, that there are commonly-used slang terms, such as “Aunt Flo”, “Bloody Mary” or “Lady time”. We have over 5,000 euphemisms for the word “period”, but we still can´t talk about it openly? Menstruation continues to prevent girls and women´s participation in school, work and social events. According to this survey, almost a quarter of women participants also said, that they have missed “school, work or a social activity” because they were menstruating. This is in accordance with trends highlighting, that period is a significant barrier to girls education globally. A period should not be an obstacle to education and participation!

Why so many girls are missing the school during their period

Several studies have described how something as simple as a lack of access to safe, private and clean bathrooms detracts from schoolgirls´ enjoyment and quality of learning. Lack of bathrooms with clean water and soap further exacerbates the discomfort and makes it difficult to stay hygienic and retain a sense of dignity.

I end up using rags,” said Nyanjuma Galoth. Source: UNFPA South Sudan/ Juma Delu

“My periods are a nightmare” 20 years old Nyanjuma Galoth told to UNFPA at a civilian protection camp in South Sudan. She said, it is a source of stress “The days I am lucky, I get a few sanitary pads from my friends, while other days, I end up using rags to absorb the blood flow.” She said “ it is like a terrible sickness”, and she is not alone. Too many girls skip school because of a lack of sanitary products. Often, the cost of sanitary products is simply too high, forcing them to stay home to tend their bleeding. The Guardian has reported, in some countries, like Malawi, sanitary pads can even cost the equivalent of an entire day´s salary. In Kenya for example, two-thirds of girls and women can´t afford sanitary pads. In Somaliland, girls and women generally use cloth without underwear to absorb their menstruation.

A number of women and girls are unable to afford sanitary pads. They are forced to use pieces of clothes or cotton wool which results in infection and skin irritation. Photograph: Emma Nzioka

Conversations for better access to feminine hygiene products have been growing around the world. Even in the United States, when former President Obama expressed that the so-called “tampon tax” (The term “tampon tax” can be mistaken, as it is not specifically targeted at tampons and other feminine hygiene products, but it is simply a part of the sale tax base) does not make sense. He said, “I suspect it´s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed”. Obama was right. Access to sanitary products should be a basic right, provided for free or at low cost. Countries and states have started steps to repeal the tax. For example, in 2016, public schools in New York introduced free tampons and pads in all secondary schools. Several  African countries like BotswanaKenyaZambiaUganda, are also using free sanitary products as a way to keep girls in schools. Between 2016 and 2018, New York, Nevada, Florida, Illinois and Connecticut eliminated the tax, and many other state introduced to do so. Around the globe, Canada, Malaysia, India and Australia have nixed the tax and Britain is on way to do so once Brexit is settled. Across Europe, the German government plans to reduce the tax on pads and tampons from 19% to 7% in 2020. Hygiene products in other countries are taxed at a lower rate or have even been abolished altogether. This was a move the European parliament encouraged its member states to do so. The fight for accessible menstrual products has started, but it will not be completed until every girl and woman will have the same access to tampons and pads, which are crucial in order to live the healthiest and dignified life.

Apart from the cost of menstrual products worldwide, stigma plays a major role in preventing girls from attending school. Period stigma usually comes from entrenched superstitions and narratives that describe women who menstruate as unclean, or impure. The period phenomenon dates back for centuries and is common among numerous different cultures, religions and backgrounds. In some places, menstruating girls and women are prohibited from cooking food, spending the night in the home or visiting religious spaces.

A Nepalese Chhaupadi. A picture from Blood Speaks A Ritual of Exile. Photograph: Poulomi Basu

In extreme cases, women and girls are forced to stay in menstrual huts and isolated from their community. “ I have no choice but to go to the shed,” 17 years old in Nepal explained near the hut where she and other girls and women stay during their periods (this practice known as “chhaupadi”, which is outlawed but yet remains widespread). This can have serious consequences, even lead to death. Just this year in Nepal, a 21 years old girl has become the fourth person known to have died from smoke inhalation in a menstrual hut after she tried to make a fire to keep herself warm. In many cultures, girls are considered women, as soon as they begin menstruating- which is believed to signal they are ready for marriage and sexual activity. A 13 years old in Kenya told UNFPA “My father told me I was to be married off”. When she got her period she said that she felt embarrassed to be a girl and “felt like it was a punishment”. Child marriage undermines girls´ education, rights, and reproductive health and stopping them from reaching their full potential. However, with comprehensive puberty education that disperse the stigma and myths about the period, girls can be prepared for a transition to women without punishment and judgment.

Lack of information, misconceptions and disadvantageous attitudes to menstruation can result in a negative self-imagine, a lack of self-esteem as these girls develop their personality as a woman. The culture of silence and taboos around menstruation multiplying the perception of menstruation as something to be ashamed of, as something is hidden and it reinforces negative attitudes and misunderstandings toward it.

How menstruation affects girls and their education?

The most commonly cited statistic in this area of research highlights: UNICEF estimated that roughly 1 in 10 African girls miss school because of a period, which leads them to miss anywhere from 10-20% of schools days. Similar statistics of the World Bank estimates school absences of approximately 4 days every 4 weeks.

A small-scale study of 198 girls in Nepal reported two findings. First, menstruation has a very small impact on school attendance, estimating that girls miss a total of 0.4 days of 180 day school year. Second, girls who received sanitary products (a menstrual cup) were no less likely to miss the school during their menstruation. In the randomized study, improved sanitary technology had no effect on reducing this small gap. Yet another study in Ghana, enrolled 120 girls between the age of 12 and 18 in the non-randomized trial of sanitary products provision with education. Girls either received sanitary pads and education, puberty education alone, or nothing. After three months, the group of girls who received sanitary pads and education significantly improved school attendance. After five months, puberty education alone improved attendance to a similar level. After five months, a total improvement through education and pads intervention was 9% increased in attendance. Even though these studies are small-scale, they demonstrate that puberty education even without menstrual hygiene materials can have an impact on school attendance.

What has been done? What can be done?

Empowering girls and women to manage their menstruations with dignity, is not a problem that girls and women should deal with on their own. Rather, policymakers, NGOs, whole communities should be coming together to solve these issues. Menstrual hygiene management and puberty education in schools relate to international agreements about the quality of education, access to education, sexual and reproductive and gender equality rights. But governments are responsible for the delivery of education, access to safe water and sanitation, gender equality and reproductive and sexual health rights.

While the international community is taking action, for example in 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that recognized “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” The post-2015 development agenda included targets on achieving universal access to water and sanitation. Menstrual Hygiene Management is therefore essential in achieving a number of the Sustainable Development Goals: healthy lives, inclusive and equitable education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, inclusive economic growth, sustainable consumption.

While the international community is taking action, for example in 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that recognized “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” The post-2015 development agenda included targets on achieving universal access to water and sanitation. Menstrual Hygiene Management is therefore essential in achieving a number of the Sustainable Development Goals: healthy lives, inclusive and equitable education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, inclusive economic growth, sustainable consumption.

On top of that, Menstrual Hygiene Management helps to keep the environment clean by saving water and avoiding waste.

Yet change is happening where we invest in girl´s and women´s rights. Many organisations are making massive progress in delivering menstrual products and educating both girls and boys. There is now a Menstrual Hygiene Day. There are advertisers who are daring to talk openly about menstrual hygiene and tampons. There are artists showing a period of blood. Through UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate to an End to Child Marriage, girls are empowered to take charge of their own bodies and about their dignity, health needs and human rights. In some clubs, girls are learning to make their own reusable menstrual pads.

Inform, talk and take an action…to empower.

Solving these complex and interrelated problems requires a collaborative, comprehensive and intergenerational approach that engages both girls and boys. Menstrual Hygiene Management is crucial to achieving gender equality. The approach must address access to toilets, sanitary products, but also combating issues like stigma and gender based-discrimination. Whatever it takes to bring menstruation out of the realm of silence and hidden. This inability to talk about periods, or being so ashamed so they have to dry their sanitary cloths under the bed or in the moisture, getting infections or worse- these degrading conditions damage the lives of millions girls and women. As long as we are not capable of talking about periods openly, and stop all the degradation and disease that comes from women´s body functions being even unclean or dangerous, we have not achieved the equality for everybody. Through constant discussion and conversation, we can normalize menstruations for those who still demand making them abnormal. Let´s acknowledge what must be done to help schoolgirls and women around the world and ensure they are given the necessary period provisions!

Leave a Reply