By: Jahaan Thawer
Menstruation is a necessary biological process that more than 800 million people undergo daily. 500 million of these people do not have access to the products and facilities essential for sanitation and safety. Many menstruating females are prohibited from cooking food, visiting religious spaces, spending the night at home, or going to school. As a result, this causes many of them to miss out on crucial life opportunities. The Covid-19 pandemic is financially constraining families in a cycle of poverty due to the expenses of menstruation products. However, NGOs and body education programs are not only helping adolescents know more about their bodies, but they are also teaching them how to cope with their menstrual cycle.
In countries around the world, many females experience isolation from their homes while menstruating. Many of them have to sleep in a separate hut which can be dangerous as several deaths have been caused by cold temperatures, animal attacks, smoke inhalation and more due to their expulsion. In India, 15-year-old Priyanka Meena informed the United Nations Population Fund that she sleeps outside her home, wears the same clothes, and uses the same utensils when she menstruates because of the shame of being unclean and impure. Menstruation is associated with a lot of stigmas and derogatory vocabulary including “time of the month,” “chum,” “female troubles,” “Aunt Flo,” “on the rag,” and “shark week.” These words and phrases are consistently used to degrade women which further engraves menstruation shame in society.
According to studies from Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Niger, Sierra Leone and elsewhere female students are frequently absent from school while menstruating. This is because of the lack of support they receive while on their menstrual cycle. One 17-year-old girl in Senegal explained that her cramps were making her weak and she “began to have pain that prevented [her] from going to school.” Another 17-year-old girl in Uganda explained that she “used to miss one week of school every month.” This is a human rights issue as many girls are unable to get the education that they deserve because of unavoidable absences. In some places, menstruation is believed to signal that girls are ready for marriage or sexual activity, leaving them susceptible to child marriage and sexual violence preventing them from living a prosperous life. At the religious Gujarat College in India, female students were forcibly stripped to detect if they were menstruating. This humiliation and degradation is an example of why many women and girls feel unsafe while menstruating, causing many opportunities to become restricted for them. Additionally, many females are unable to attend their temples while on their menstrual cycle. However, India’s Supreme Court ruled that religious freedoms cannot be invoked as a “cover” for sexist policies, therefore, lifting its ban on women “of menstruating age.” This reform will allow women and girls to feel less ashamed and enables them to pray at their temple whenever they choose to. Reforms, menstrual support, and equity will give women the same opportunities as men and will empower them to achieve a better quality of life.
Many of those who menstruate lack information about their own menstrual health, the services available to treat menstrual disorders, and supplies to manage menstrual hygiene. As a result, many females have to improvise products such as old rags or straws instead of safe menstrual products. Many infections, illnesses or other serious long-term health problems can be caused by unsafe and unsanitary measures. The Sneha Project is an organization based in different parts of India that use one-on-one strategies to educate adolescents on the importance of menstrual hygiene management. In Malawi, many university students were able to get access to a menstrual cup and it became a very popular product that is safe, sanitary, reusable, and cost-efficient. A woman from the university “used to spend 1,000 kwacha [$1.40] every month to buy sanitary pads, but with the menstrual cup, [she doesn’t] spend anything.” The UNFPA has been working to improve the access to menstrual hygiene supplies by supporting training programmes that teach girls to make reusable sanitary pads. Also in Malawi, two young girls named Fatima Muhammed and Deborah Chavula help their classmates maintain efficient menstrual hygiene by making sanitary napkins in their school’s sewing room after school. This allows their classmates who were menstruating to feel comfortable and sanitary at school. All over the world, menstruating women face a lot of stigmas which makes it difficult for them to gain fundamental and necessary products for their menstrual hygiene. However, they should be able to get access to products that will keep them safe, comfortable, and clean wherever and whenever they need it.
Period poverty has been a crucial issue for many people around the world. For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened access to menstrual products. This is due to the pandemic’s effect on financial pressure and thus, affording supplies. In Nairobi’s Kibera slum a 16-year-old girl named Nisera shares that “with families stocking up on food and supplies, [she] can tell you for a fact that the majority of families in [her] area will not consider sanitary towels. Those are normally considered a luxury.” When her city went into lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many girls like Nisera were no longer able to access menstrual products to manage their periods. This is because many of them “used to get sanitary towels from [their] school in Kibera and now that schools are closed, [they] have to use pieces of cloth, which is very uncomfortable.” Nisera feels upset as she “can’t do things normally, like household chores or sit down as [she is] afraid of soiling [her] clothes.” An organization called Plan International is helping communities all over the world by distributing dignity kits which include hygiene products like pads, body soap, washing soap for clothes, and many other products that many people do not have access to. These kits will help women and girls manage their periods safely. Many different organizations are working together to end the stigma which is aiding in better menstrual hygiene management.
Recently, I got the opportunity to visit India. I was able to speak with an amazing group of young women about their experiences with menstruation. Many of their stories pertained to not having access to menstrual hygiene products and the stigma many of them face by their dads, brothers, uncles, classmates, and more. One girl mentioned that many of them are not allowed to openly talk about menstruation especially with the male members of their family. However, their body education program is open to males to start the conversation and break the taboo of menstruation. Many organizations within the small rural communities of India have created awareness of this women’s rights issue. For example, Chetna is an organization in India that recognizes the health, nutrition and other developmental needs of children, young people and women at the critical stages of life with a focus on menstruation. In India, 60.3% of girls had not known what menstruation was before getting their first period. This is because many females are not educated about their bodies in school and are not able to get that information at home. Girls in Rupantaran, Nepal, attend a learning session about their rights, bodies and health as well as menstruation. Organizations similar to Chetna in India created aprons with a uterus on them to destigmatize and educate women about their bodies. The organization also teaches the girls about their anatomy, rights, and hygiene which provides them with knowledge of better hygiene techniques. Body education programs will also encourage women to make their physical health a priority and will give them the ability to truly understand the processes of their menstrual cycle.
Many of those who are menstruating are unable to experience life the same way as those who do not menstruate. Thus, because of the stigma and shame associated with menstruation, many people are unable to gain access to fundamental menstrual products needed to feel safe and comfortable. However, governments are progressively realizing the human rights issues and are helping those in need. NGOs, other organizations, and individual change-makers are also raising awareness, educating others, and distributing essential hygiene products. This will empower women and girls to overcome the stigma and discrimination that they have faced for countless years.
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