Menstrual Hygiene Day: Why period stigma holds women back

Earlier this year, over 60 girls at a college in India were told to remove their undergarments to check if they were menstruating.

Apparently, the girls were checked because the college hostel has a rule that girls having periods are not supposed to take meals with other peers. This is why they decided to check them after they came to know that some menstruating girls had broken the rule and taken the meal.

 

The allegation came to light and caused an uproar that instigated an investigation probe by law enforcement.

 

Such occurrences indicate how menstruation has always been surrounded with folklores and taboos that have often led to exclusion of women from many aspects of socio-cultural life.

 

These beliefs and customs have perpetuated stigma around menstruating and have long affected women’s livelihoods in society.

And today, as the world marks World Menstrual Hygiene Day, stakeholders have come together to advocate for the importance of good menstrual hygiene management.

This year’s theme ‘It’s time for action,’ however, puts focus on the urgency for the collective work needed to change the negative social norms surrounding menstruation and also catalyse progress toward empowering women and girls to unlock their educational and economic opportunities.

Isabella Akaliza, the founder of #FreeThePeriod initiative, says that persisting taboos and stigma, poor menstrual hygiene caused by a lack of education on the issue, limited access to hygienic menstrual products and poor sanitation infrastructure, undermines the educational opportunities, health and overall social status of women and girls in Rwanda. 

And that as a result, millions of women and girls are kept from reaching their full potential.

Shame, stigma and misinformation surrounding menstruation are contributing to serious human rights concerns for women and girls, according to information from United Nations Population Fund.

It underscores the ways period shame and misinformation undermine the well-being of women and girls, making them vulnerable to gender discrimination, child marriage, exclusion, violence, poverty and untreated health problems.

Menstruation taboos can keep women and girls from touching water or cooking, attending religious ceremonies, or engaging in community activities. These taboos reinforce gender-based discrimination, perpetuating the idea that menstruating women and girls are ‘unclean’.

Bertin Ganza, a gender activist, suggests that the impact of such negative social norms is far reaching, and that it not only derails the health of girls and women but their social and mental health as well.

“When a girl gets her menstrual periods, most of them feel ashamed, they fear talking to anyone including their parents. Even in schools, teachers don’t really focus on it. So young girls keep a lot to themselves, or worse get the wrong information from peers.

Ganza, hence, emphasises that it’s the lack of openness and information that’s still perpetuating such taboos.

 “It’s time to open up, menstruation is not a problem, and this is a reality that every woman faces. Girls shouldn’t be ashamed, they shouldn’t miss school neither should they have their whole livelihoods affected because of this,” he says.

An open platform 

Ganza is of the view that young girls should have access to such information at a tender age, especially in regards to hygiene, because without it, they are prone to face life threatening health problems, like diseases.

According to Marie Ange Raïssa Uwamungu, the founder of Impanuro Girls Initiative, a platform that empowers girls and women through counselling and training, and also educates them on the prevention of early and unwanted pregnancies, some people think menstruation is not worth being talked about and that this leads to many young girls not opening up to their parents when they get their period for the first time.

In regards to hygiene, Uwamungu says the cost of sanitary pads is still posing a big challenge.

Sanitary pads are very expensive, some opt for regular cloths or choose to use one pad for long, and this can lead to heavy uncleanliness for the ones that cannot afford them, she explains.

On this note, she points out that it is important also to advocate for good menstrual hygiene, such that women get to understand that it’s very normal to have their menstruation and not a punishment, no matter how painful it might be. 

“This will help them understand that it is their responsibility to take good care of their bodies by eating well and making sure they know how many times they should be changing their sanitary pads or tampons.”

Addressing the challenges

Uwamungu, therefore, calls onto parents and guardians to feel the liberty to talk about menstruation with their children at an early age, noting that more advocacy is needed, especially in rural areas.

She also believes that sanitary pads should be free in primary and secondary schools just like toilet paper is given out for free.

Akaliza says, “We have already made some commendable steps towards addressing the issue of period poverty, but there is still much that can be done. We must continue to engage our decision-makers to increase the political priority of ending period poverty. We must also raise awareness about the negative social norms that surround periods, and change them. We have to break the silence.”

Ganza shares a similar opinion, noting that certain cultural norms have to be broken, and most importantly, break the silence that surrounds menstruation.

“What I wish is for every child, not only girls, but boys to be taught about menstruation so that they are be prepared and have knowledge about it, this will help them all behave accordingly. Grooming children right from childhood is the best way to beat harmful societal norms.”

dmbabazi@newtimesrwanda.com

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