Adolescence is a transitional phase in life from childhood to adulthood and is something worth celebrating. Unfortunately, for many girls adolescence remains a crucial yet challenging life stage because of its physical and psychological changes – one being menstruation.
On any given day, 300 million women and girls around the world will be menstruating and most will spend a total of 3,500 days of their lives bleeding – the majority of whom lack access to clean and safe sanitary products, to a clean and private space in which to change menstrual cloths or pads, or to a private space in which to wash.
Negative social and cultural attitudes towards menstruation prevent millions of girls and women from reaching their full potential. In many societies, menstruation is supposed to be invisible and silent; therefore, menstruating women and girls are supposed to be invisible and silent too. The resulting cultural silence surrounding menstruation creates the foundation for girls feeling lifelong discomfort about their bodies, for not seeking help when menstrual problems arise, for lacking knowledge and skills on menstrual management, and for lacking access to safe, affordable, convenient and culturally appropriate methods for dealing with menstruation. Such situations are mainly caused by poverty, early sexual activity, and lacking an awareness of reproductive health rights.
In many countries, especially in rural Africa, girls are unaware and unprepared for the onset of their menses and, because many schools lack functional toilets or running water, girls often choose to stay home during their periods. As to be expected, this poses immediate consequences for girls’ education.
In Kenyan urban slums and rural areas, attending school during one’s menstrual cycle is simply not possible without feminine hygiene products. Poor sanitation due to poor menstrual management not only undermines the dignity of those affected but also culminates in poor academic performance as young girls opt to stay home. Unable to afford disposable pads, most of these girls are forced to miss a week of schooling every month. As a result, girls may fail to fulfill the required marks and school attendance days.
Sadly, staying home from school does not necessarily promise a safe and healthy period. For example, girls may be forced to have sex with older men in exchange for money to buy sanitary towels. Girls may also result to using unhygienic materials such as recycled used disposable pads or improvised pads from old clothes, rags, newspapers, bits of mattress and any readily available materials.
“Limited access to safe affordable, convenient and culturally appropriate methods for dealing with menstruation has far reaching implications for rights and physical, social and mental well-being of many women and adolescent girls in Kenya. It undermines sexual and reproductive health and well-being and has been shown to restrict access to education.” – Africa Population Health Research Center, 2010
UNESCO estimates that one in ten African adolescent girls miss school during menses and eventually drop out because of menstruation-related issues (i.e. inaccessibility of affordable sanitary protection, social taboos related to menstruation and its culture of silence).
In many cultures menstrual blood is considered dirty and harmful, thus restricting menstruating girls from participating in activities for fear that they may ‘contaminate’ others and the things they touch. For instance, in some African communities, menstruating girls are not allowed in the kitchen to cook or to do the dishes and neither are they allowed to participate in games with other young people. This in turn fosters stigma as the restrictions create the false perception that menstruation is shameful and that menstrual blood is harmful.
The global community needs to put more effort towards supporting girls and their menstrual cycles. In order to move forward, we must:
- Improve access to sanitary towels, running water, toilets and privacy;
- Increase the number of trained health care workers able to respond to girls’ questions and concerns and who can provide accurate information and care when menstrual health problems occur; and
- Community leaders must enhance efforts to change the perception of menarche and menstruation to one of promise and pride rather than shame.
With all the aforementioned efforts combined, we will undoubtedly help to increase and improve girls’ self-esteem, enable girls to take charge of their own lives, and create safe and supportive environments in which to grow and shine.
On International Women’s Day, let’s raise our voice and put an end to the silence surrounding menstruation.