News broke earlier this year that girls in the UK are being forced to miss school because they can’t afford to buy menstrual products. Too poor to buy tampons? In this country? In 2017? Surely not.
At the heart of the story were testimonies of two teenage girls living in Leeds in northern England. During a radio interview with the BBC, the girls explained that the financial strain their families were under meant that they didn’t feel able to ask for extra money to buy menstrual products.
This revelation – while awful – isn’t really shocking when considered along with the fact that there were 25,000 visits to food banks in Leeds alone in the past year. It isn’t hard to understand why tampons and pads might not make it high up on the priority list for a family struggling to purchase a meal.
What is shocking is the shame, confusion and worry these girls experienced in connection to menstruation.
One told the interviewer: “I wrapped a sock around my underwear just to stop the bleeding, cause I didn’t want to get shouted at!” I listened to her words with immense sadness and wondered what she thought she had done wrong.
The second girl said: “I didn’t know what was going on with my body…I thought it was only happening to me and I didn’t know if it was happening to anyone else so I was scared.”
Learning that a child in the same UK I grew up in could get her first period and have no idea what was happening was a wake up call for me. How could she have been failed so badly by so many different people? In a country with education and healthcare systems that are supposedly among the best in the world, I can see literally no excuse for any young girl to look down at her underwear one day and not understand why she sees blood there.
Why hadn’t she been taught about periods in school? Why aren’t teachers talking to girls and boys about what will soon be happening to their bodies as part of their basic education? Why were none of her peers talking about it? She can’t have been the only one worrying in silence and isolation.
Apparently, the average woman will spend 3,500 days menstruating in a lifetime. That adds up to almost ten years. I struggle to imagine doing anything else for an entire decade of my life whilst barely mentioning it.
Because even in 2017, stigma keeps our mouths zipped tightly shut when it comes to periods. And every pair of closed lips intensifies the silence that so successfully oppresses women and girls all over the world.
But things are so much worse in other countries, you might say. And it’s true. Just a few months before the news of the girls in Leeds, it was reported that a 26-year-old woman died in Nepal while practicing chaupadi – the (illegal) ritual that requires menstruating women to sleep in a hut outside to avoid ‘contaminating’ the rest of the household. They think the young woman had a heart attack.
So yes, perhaps the stigma around menstruation in the UK isn’t deadly as it can be in other parts of the world.
But while there is even one single girl in this country missing out on going to school because she feels shame or pain or fear when she experiences the natural process that underpins the entire existence of the human race – none of us have very much to be proud of.
Happily, we can change the reality with something we already do every single day. We can talk. By breaking the silence on menstruation you can start to reject the shame that’s thrown at you – millions do not have that possibility. We must, if we’re lucky enough to have the option, try to unlearn the things we’ve been taught that make us feel ashamed of our periods.
5 Ways to Celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day 2017:
Donate menstrual products to your nearest food bank
Follow activists like Kiran Gandhi
Vote for your favourite #PeriodEmoji
Talk openly – and not just with your closest circle of girlfriends. Practice saying “I’m on my period”, rather than one of the many euphemisms we use instead.
Donate money or products to organizations like The Homeless Period or Bloody Good Period