The Taboos And The Tags On Women’s Sanitary Needs

Globally, it is agreed that females start menstruating from around the age of 12. This has been happening for generations; the menstrual cycle is not a new situation. But why is that there is no global, no go-to, unequivocal source of knowledge on the subject? There is no globalized strategy for how we talk about periods, deal with them or respect them.

When a human is thirsty we give them water. When one is hungry, we feed it. When we’re tired, we are put to bed. But when a female starts bleeding once a month, despite the similarity in its nature to thirst, hunger or fatigue, there is no standardized response.

In rural communities in Kenya, for example, periods are considered impure and unclean. Men think it is dirty to bleed and refuse to interact with women during this time. Parents generally refuse to speak about the subject, and girls are reported to combat the issue by either bleeding in their panties or wrapping a small blanket around them. These dirty cloths are then thrown on the floor anywhere, which inevitably makes the area unclean and unhygienic as a living space. Here, an average of 4.9 school days per month are missed by girls because of their periods.

In many parts of Africa, the disposable pad is expensive and unaffordable, and for the women who may have the means to purchase them, their finance is at the liberty of their male superiors. This leaves many women in a position where they cannot access sanitary products without exposing themselves to potential shame or embarrassment. As such, women then resort to using leaves, sticks, and even husks of corn to soak up the blood.

Even in Westernized countries, such as the UK, there is a tampon tax from which money goes to domestic abuse refuges: safe places for women to shelter from violent men. In cases of poverty and homelessness, sanitary protection becomes unaffordable. The luxurification of period protection is a disgrace to women’s needs, and especially insulting when compared to the lack of VAT on men’s razors.

In India, girls are left to sit in the same wet cloths all day due to lack of clean changing facilities in school. When thinking about this in the context of a heavy cycle in which a woman might soak around 9 tampons in one day, the amount of blood these girls will be soaking into the same pair of underwear is an uncomfortable thought.

Many women in India are forbidden to touch or handle food during their menstrual cycle. Similar taboos around uncleanliness, impurity and rejection encircle the subject of menstruation. This makes the reality even harder, as in trying to be hygienic, whether washing by cloths or hands after changing, a woman must hide herself away to do so, concealing the blood from any potential onlookers. Used products are thrown far away or dug into a hole, which makes heavy work for the environment.

The curriculum at school is no aid to this as the chapter is often skipped. The same goes in parts of Pakistan, where pages on puberty were reportedly ‘ripped out of the textbook.’ In a video by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) Roopali, a schoolgirl from India, comments on the education around the menstrual cycle:

“All girls should know about it before they get their first period so that they know how to manage it properly. The first one is always very scary, [with education] girls will know what to expect and be more confident, they will not believe all these taboos and superstitions and will go about their daily routine normally. They will not think that this is something dirty or shameful.”

Archana Paktar, WSSCC Programme Manager, states that “we must talk about it with pride, and without shame. We must manage it hygienically, safely and with dignity, and we must dispose of menstrual waste safely, in an environmentally responsible manner.”

It is essential that we break the silence in developing countries. Education and openness are vital. The response must be global. With the recent news of a woman’s death from a snake bite when she was sent to a hut during her menses in Nepalese ‘chaupadi’ tradition, the situation is fatal. Nepal is no anomaly in its lack of efficient practice towards menstruation. Women are cast out into proverbial sheds for bleeding everywhere.

In Malawi, it is not talked about at all. In Iran, virginity is considered sacred, and tampons are believed to break the hymen. White sheets are waved like a victory flag when they are soaked from the blood of marital consummation. In Bolivia, girls hide their used pads in school rucksacks as they’re told the pads are cancerous if mixed with other waste.

Observant Muslims are not allowed to pray in a mosque whilst on their period and are often considered as not ‘dahir,’ meaning clean or pure. This harmful connotation leads to more dirtiness than without the stigma: sanitation is essential to cleanliness.

When women are stopped from fulfilling cleaning rituals around their cycle due to shame, a build up of bacteria and mould can form on dirty pads or they are disposed of in dangerous ways. If the vagina is not cleaned properly, this can also lead to UTIs and other diseases spreading, as well as general discomfort.

The judgement around menstruation can also work in the opposite way: in Lebanon the cycle is linked to familial structure and biological motherhood, making it difficult for those who don’t have regular periods. Those with cycle-affecting conditions such as polycystic ovaries may also feel shame for not being considered a part of womanhood, which is unfair and discriminatory.

For some women, even with the liberation of the taboo, it is important to recognize that their periods can be incredibly painful and difficult, leading to a sense of isolation if or when they are told to be happy about their time of the month. Liberating the period is not about celebrating it as full of happiness and femininity, though that can be a wonderful byproduct, but recognizing it as a natural human cycle and providing support.

What I suggest to combat the issue of a lack of standard global response to the menstrual cycle, is a few things. Firstly education. Puberty should be a compulsory subject and sex education classes should start from an early age. This will allow, as Roopali said, females to be aware of what is going to happen to their bodies before it happens. It also means that men will understand better what a woman tends to go through every month.

With education, proper training on hygiene and waste disposal would be enforced. Alternatives to disposable Kotex pads and paper tampons could come in reusable cloths and menstrual cups. This would also save inconceivable amounts of waste. Mathematically, if one female uses an average of 20 tampons or pads per cycle, that’s 240 per year. That’s 2,400 per decade. One menstrual cup lasts for ten years.

Three reusable pads provide at least three years of use. NGOs such as DaysForGirls, AFRIPads and many more are now helping women and girls in rural communities to make their own enterprising businesses out of reusable pad production. This helps females to generate their own income outside of male control and provides an environmentally friendly solution to the waste that comes with absorbing menstrual blood. Furthermore, this scheme also opens up the conversation about menstruation and helps women to come together and unite in their strive to achieve a safe, clean, and supportive response to the menstrual cycle.

From a government level, I believe that reusable pads and cups should be supplied for free, available at clinics or schools. The government would pay the companies who produce them, and companies who currently produce the disposable types could change to produce the reusable forms, so ideally very few jobs would be lost. If anything they could be gained by the use of manual labour.

In many countries, sanitary products are unaffordable and elusive. Women are rejected and chastised for their bodies and natural processes when they could be supported and helped. We must work to change this and liberate women all over the world.