May 28th 2017 marks World Menstrual Hygiene Day, in what is now an annual campaign aimed at raising awareness about the impact of the negative associations with menstruation and the lack of access to menstrual products can have on menstruator’s lives. from their ability to continue education to their participation in the public and social life of their community.
World Menstrual Hygiene Day was first celebrated in 2014. It aims to create a world in which every person who menstruates can manage their period in a hygienic way – wherever they are – in privacy, safety and with dignity. Menstrual Hygiene Day works toward breaking the silence and building awareness about the fundamental role that good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) plays in enabling menstruating people to reach their full potential.
2017’s World Menstrual Hygiene day focuses on the importance of menstrual education both for menstruators and the community in general. Many people around the world do not have access to even the most basic information on menstruation. They do not know what it is or what to expect when they first menstruate and may not have any information on how to manage their menstruation in a hygienic manner.
In India only 50% of girls have any knowledge about menstruation before their first period. In Ethiopia as few as one-third of girls receive education on menstruation. In the UK and Ireland we may not be doing much better. A recent survey carried out by Betty for Schools found that 47% of 16-year-old girls from the UK did not know what to expect for their first period.
Menstrual education in schools is at best patchy and at worst non-existent, with most menstruators relying on a family member or friend to provide information and advise them on how to manage their menstruation. Furthermore, menstrual education is often ‘outsourced’ to companies that sell menstrual products, who are neither partial nor have strictly educational interests in mind when it comes providing information about menstruation.
Menstrual education, publicity for menstrual hygiene products and society in general often reinforce negative stereotypes around menstruation as something which is dirty, gross, shameful or which must be kept secret. This can be as simple as separating girls and boys for the school talk about periods, sending the message that menstruation is something only girls need to worry about. Or in advertisements where nary a drop of menstrual blood is ever seen, implying that every month a blue liquid will be flowing from between our legs. Or the persistence of myths where menstruation people should not cook, clean or milk animals because they will ‘contaminate’ everything they touch. Or censorship in social media and advertising.
Menstrual shame is a global problem from women in the UK reporting that they still feel embarrassed about their periods to the isolation of young girls during their menstruation. A staggering 32% of those surveyed by Betty for Schools admitted to feelings of shame associated with menstruating, as well as feeling unable ask for more information from their teachers or other educators about periods in the classroom.
Menstrual stigma can manifest itself in the most everyday experiences: the public embarrassment of finding a blood stain on your clothes, your friends/colleagues/partners who get uncomfortable if you mention the ‘P’ word in friendly conversation, or the taboo around sex during menstruation. This kind of stigma prevents people from talking openly about their bodies natural processes, seeking out correct information and in the worst cases creates a sense of shame and fear around everything related to menstruation.
Access to Menstrual Hygiene Products
Period poverty which refers to the lack of access to adequate menstrual hygiene products. In can mean that menstruators are unable to go to school or leave the house due to shame or embarrassment or have to use tissues or newspapers to soak up the blood. The Guardian recently reported that significant numbers of girls from low-income families in the UK are missing out on school because they cannot afford to buy sanitary pads or tampons.
Other recent campaigns have highlighted the lack of access to menstrual care products in prisons and for people living in homelessness. In the case of women who are imprisoned, withholding menstrual hygiene products has been used to demoralise and shame prisoners and thus a strategy for controlling the prison population. The attitudes behind keeping the tampon tax and denying prisoners access to menstrual products are based on the idea that somehow menstrual hygiene is not actually essential and it is a problem for individuals to resolve for themselves.
A longterm solution would be to access reusable menstrual products. The probem for people living in poverty is that the initial investment is quite high (usually about 30 euro for a cup or set of pads) and they are still relatively hard to find compared disposable products. There is also the issue of whether people living in homelessness or people who have been imprisoned will have access to facilities to wash and dry their pads or menstrual cups.
The Pro-Period Movement
The good news is that there is a growing movement of feminist activists working to beat period stigma and achieve access to safe and ecological menstrual products for all menstruators. The Pro-Period movement is diverse but it could be said that its principal focus is on menstrual health education, body literacy and body positivity, inclusivity and promoting healthy, affordable and alternative products to the commercial tampons and pads offered by the ‘femcare’ industry.
Period positivity means, according to Chella Quint that “you are willing to confidently ask and/or frankly answer questions about periods, understand the importance for menstruators to chart their cycle and treat it as a vital sign, avoid passing on shame to others, and if you joke about it, that you make sure menstruators aren’t the butt of the joke.”
I am jumping on the Menstravaganza bandwagon for the month of May to write about one of my greatest obsessions/passions: menstrual health. As I begin this menstrual odessy I would like to note that menstrual hygiene awareness is a global issue. Focusing solely on women and girls in the ‘developing world’ while ignoring the menstrual inequalities existing in our own communities smacks of the white saviour complex. It also adds to the sense of ‘otherness’ so often present in development discourse and practice: it is only ‘other’ women from ‘impoverished’ countries that need to worry about menstrual education and access to menstrual hygiene products.
Menstrual education and hygiene is as much of an issue for feminists from so-called ‘developed countries’ as it is for feminists in developing countries, however, I am a 32-year-old, white, cis-gender woman from Ireland and I write from my own experience, which is largely, but not exclusively framed by this context. Without taking from the urgency of access to clean water and quality menstrual hygiene products that exist in communities from the Global South, I will be focusing on how menstrual hygiene and menstrual education is addressed in the context of which I live.
This series will look at why we should use a more inclusive language for menstruation, strategies for breaking the stigma on menstruation, why it’s important to talk about menstruation, representation of menstruation in pop culture, and a number of fellow bloggers will be sharing their stories on their first menstruation, menstruation education and how they plan to transmit positive messages about menstruation to their children.
In the mean time, when you got that flow…