Having a period has long been a source of stigma for women all over the globe. Internationally, we humans don’t agree on a lot, but apparently for a long time we agreed that periods are gross. From 5,000 euphemisms in 10 different languages that describe a period (1) to the ignorant jokes like, “I don’t trust anything that bleeds for 5 days and doesn’t die,” some people don’t want to talk or even think about periods.
Cultures all over the world vary in their treatment of menstruation, including some forbidding certain activities for women while they have their period, and others trying to break down the stigma, create better access to menstrual supplies, and normalize periods.
For example, if you live in India and are menstruating, you are not allowed to enter the kitchen or handle food because some people believe doing so will cause the food to spoil. In Tanzania, people believe that if you allow another person to see your used menstrual cloth, you’ll become cursed (2). In Bangladesh, people have many rules based on common beliefs about menstruation; just one example is that you’re discouraged from leaving home while on your period to avoid being attacked by evils spirits that will make you infertile (3). In rural Ghana, someone who’s menstruating can’t enter a house if a man is inside (1).
These are just a few examples, but the message that all of these beliefs send is that menstruation is evil, dirty, and shameful, which some say is a form of misogyny and just one more way to disempower women (4). In contrast, members of the Cherokee Nation consider menstruating women to be sacred and powerful (5) — now that’s more like it!
Not only are periods generally associated with shame and dirtiness, but many people in developing parts of the world don’t have access to menstrual supplies to manage their periods. In Kenya, studies have shown that girls will miss about 20% of the school year because of their periods (1).
The good news is that many organizations are making attempts to lift the period stigma. To mention just two, Femme International is an international non-profit organization dedicated to breaking the menstrual taboo through education, conversation, and policy advocacy. Another organization based in the U.S., PERIOD. The Menstrual Movement, is fighting to end period poverty and stigma through service, education, and advocacy. They made history in October 2019 with the first-ever National Period Day that included 60 rallies in all 50 states and 4 countries.
But not all efforts to reduce the stigma around menstruation are successful. In Japan in December 2019, a department store that sells menstrual supplies and other items specifically for women provided badges for employees to wear on their name tags to indicate when they were on their period. The intention was to break the period taboo and encourage open discussion in Japan, where periods are considered embarrassing and dirty. Some responded positively, with one employee saying it was easier to excuse yourself to go to the restroom, while others responded negatively, claiming that the badge invited discrimination and harassment (6). This is a situation in which good intentions went awry, but the important thing is that they plan to keep trying.
Another example of when things don’t go quite as expected is when companies offer menstrual leave, which allows for time off without using vacation or sick time. This policy is recognized in a few countries, including India, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea, and Zambia (7).
Sounds pretty great, right? If you’re having menstrual cramps or other symptoms, all you have to do is be honest with your boss and you get to go home to curl up with a heating pad — sweet! On the surface, it seems like a compassionate and gracious benefit to offer employees, but let’s dig a little deeper.
Offering this kind of leave could be considered reverse sexism and could encourage hiring discrimination against women. Moreover, designating leave specifically for menstrual cramps sends the message that menstruation is some kind of handicap or illness that debilitates us (7). The 20% of women who experience dysmenorrhea, or period-related pain that is severe enough to interfere with normal life (8), should absolutely be given the time off they need. But instituting a blanket policy that provides special treatment for menstruation perpetuates the notion that we are unable to do our jobs because of our periods (7) — which we all know to be false.
Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, suggests providing a general leave policy for all employees that allows them take time off for reasons including chronic medical conditions (7).
Menstrual leave isn’t perfect, and as we’ve seen above, it may not even be a step in the right direction, but the important thing is that the conversation about periods is happening!
Period stigma isn’t limited to developing countries. Even in the United States, the period stigma is all too real. The “Tampon Tax” is the tax charged on menstrual supplies, when other health and medical supplies are not taxed. This essentially treats menstrual supplies as luxury goods (9, 10).
Menstruation is considered an important indicator of health and a vital sign, much like heart rate and respiratory rate (11), but how can we emphasize that when education about female reproduction and menstruation is so severely lacking that 40% of women think they continue to produce eggs during their reproductive years? By the way, you’re born with all the eggs you’re going to have in your lifetime (12).
Another example of period injustice is Arizona’s prison system, which once restricted female inmates to 12 menstrual pads per month. If inmates needed more, they’d have to ask prison guards, who often denied their requests. Thanks to lobbying, female inmates now have access to 36 pads per month, but it’s due to a decision from the Department of Corrections, not the state; meaning the rule could be repealed at any time (10).
We are so excited to see some momentum and movement in the right direction! Whenever we see this kind of growth, we want to know what we can do to help, too.
Activist and founder of Free Periods Amike George says that everyone, even boys, needs to be educated about periods. “Indirectly, periods will affect them too, and, for too long they’ve been left out of the conversation,” George states (4).
Period stigma, the Pink Tax, which is the mark-up on products marketed towards women (13), and the Tampon Tax are all coming to light, and hopefully that’s a sign that change is not far behind. If you want to help be part of the solution, pay attention to the conversation and opportunities for advocacy, and support legislation that will help promote equality.
Many companies that sell menstrual supplies will use a portion of your purchase to donate period kits to those in need while others have a “buy one, give one” policy. This is a great way to get your money to do double-duty: You get what you need and help someone else get what they need. It’s a win-win!
If you can afford it, another great way to help menstruators everywhere is to donate to organizations that are working towards a more period positive world. Many nonprofit organizations also provide menstrual supplies, and you may not have to look very far from home to find a fellow menstruator in need. For example, Freedom4Girls actively provides menstrual supplies to residents of East Africa and the U.K. I Support the Girls supports victims of crimes and those experiencing homelessness or affected by natural disasters by providing bras and menstrual supplies. #HappyPeriod is working towards awareness, eliminating the stigma, and providing period options that are affordable, healthy, and sustainable.
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