When Amanda Keifer was growing up in the rural South, most people didn’t feel comfortable talking about periods, and many girls couldn’t afford to buy pads.
“We weren’t taught about it at home. Girls would come to school and think they were dying,” Keifer told ThinkProgress. “Teachers would keep pads, tampons, and deodorant in their desk drawers because so many students didn’t have those things.”
Now, in her role as an international policy analyst for Advocates for Youth, Keifer works with young women all over the world who have similar stories about struggling to get adequate information about menstrual hygiene and affordable access to sanitary products. In Nigeria, Elizabeth works with an organization to teach girls the truth about their periods, and reassure them they don’t need to be scared when they start menstruating for the first time. In Kenya, Caren spends her weekends traveling to rural villages to buy pads for girls with her own money.
According to Keifer, the youth advocates she meets are often “appalled” to learn these issues are also happening in the U.S. — but it’s a testament to the fact that this issue connects people in every corner of globe.
On Thursday, Advocates for Youth is joining forces with hundreds of international organizations to mark Menstrual Hygiene Day — a new effort to destigmatize women’s menstrual cycles, and advocate for better access to pads and tampons for women who may otherwise be forced to resort to less sanitary options.
Girls would come to school and think they were dying.
Women in low-income countries in particular can’t always afford to buy the sanitary products they need to safely manage their monthly period. For instance, according to one study, as many as 70 percent of women in India use old rags during menstruation, which increases their risk of developing infections and reproductive diseases.
It’s a serious health issue, but it’s also connected to other areas of young women’s lives. Failing to address menstrual hygiene is undermining girls’ education because, if they lack access to proper sanitary products and private bathroom accommodations, they’re more likely to miss school during their period. Even if they do attend classes during the week that they’re menstruating, their ability to participate in class is often severely compromised. A recent survey of girls in Sierra Leone found that female students opt to sit in the back of the classroom when they’re on their periods because they believe their other classmates will be able to smell them, and they frequently leave class to make sure they haven’t stained their skirt.
Thinking about ways to design bathrooms to give girls more privacy to change their pads and tampons can end up improving other aspects of their health and wellbeing, too. There’s some evidence that the lack of proper sanitation and gender-segregated toilets puts women at greater risk for being raped. The link between sanitation and sexual violence was detailed in a 2011 report from NGOs Sanitation and Hygiene Applied Research for Equity (SHARE), which found that women were afraid to leave their homes to relieve themselves because men loitered around the toilets at night.
“Menstrual hygiene is the perfect vehicle for talking about issues facing girls more broadly. Education, human rights, economic security, safety, health — menstrual hygiene touches them all,” Keifer pointed out.
That’s why the groups involved with Menstrual Hygiene Day are hoping to convince the international community to dedicate more resources to tackling the issues currently preventing girls from managing their periods. Particularly as the United Nations works toward finalizing sustainable development goals, which will guide the policy agendas for UN member states for the next 15 years, advocates for menstrual hygiene want women’s periods to be a specific area of focus.
This year — which marks just the second annual Menstrual Hygiene Day — there’s also a specific emphasis on addressing the societal stigma around menstruation that makes girls around the world feel dirty and ashamed during their monthly cycles.
“Breaking down global taboos so that we can discuss this natural bodily function has positive impacts beyond a woman’s reproductive health,” Dr. Dani Barrington, a sanitation expert and the strategic adviser for Menstrual Hygiene Day in Australia, said in a statement. “It is of vital importance to her dignity.”
Even though women have been menstruating since the beginning of time, negative attitudes persist about the basic reproductive health act. Women are still cast as “impure” or “unclean” during their period; in India, for example, the majority of women believe they shouldn’t water plants, enter temples, cook food, or sleep in the same bed as their husbands while they’re menstruating. Forty eight percent of girls in Iran believe that menstruation is a disease.
Women and girls talking about their periods is just huge.
These attitudes are alive and well in the United States, too, where talking about periods is still taboo and often considered to be inappropriate for polite company. A few months ago, Instagram sparked backlash when it removed a photo of a fully clothed woman on her period, saying that the spot of menstrual blood was violating the site’s “community guidelines.” Artistic photos of menstrual blood are regularly labeled as “not safe for work.” Forty percent of Americans say they’re embarrassed to buy tampons.
Feminists argue that the widespread discomfort with a universal female experience betrays the fact that our global society is within the firm control of men. In 1986, Gloria Steinem argued that if men got periods, “menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event” and “sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.”
“Women and girls talking about their periods is just huge. Talking about it, even just with each other, is a huge step we really need to take in order to make change,” Keifer said. “I’m hoping that this event, and asking people to continue thinking about the issue, will bring along a few people who maybe weren’t already on the period wagon!”