WaterAid: Breaking the bloody taboos around menstruation

Posted On: 
25th May 2018

This Menstrual Hygiene Day, on 28 May, have a public conversation about periods: with a colleague, a friend, your family. We can all do something to break this bloody taboo, says Margaret Batty, Director of Global Policy and Campaign, WaterAid.

Young girls and women learn how to use a cotton sanitary towel, demonstrations done by Fanjantiana, 47, a WaterAid-trained menstrual hygiene volunteer, part of a hygiene awareness project in Morondavo, Madagascar.
Credit: 
WaterAid/Kate Holt

It is not every day that you nearly hit a government minister with a tampon.

But on International Women’s Day in March, I wanted to start a conversation, and what better way than by throwing around a few sanitary products?

‘The curse’, ‘the time of the month’, ‘Aunt Flo’, ‘on the rag’ -- those are just a few of the terms we use to describe the bleeding that women everywhere experience every month.

There are about 2 billion women of menstruating age around the world; of these, approximately 288 million women are on their periods on any one day. Menstruating women spend around 52 days a year on their period – that is 14% of their time.

It is surprising, to say the least, that we are too embarrassed to use the real word for this monthly ritual, without which human life would cease to exist. Menstruation remains wrapped up in stigma and shame.

A new WaterAid survey shows that most women don’t have a very positive feeling about their periods: 1 in 3 women and girls here in the UK feel inconvenienced every month and just over a quarter worry they might leak. About 20 percent of women dread their period each month.

But if it is occasionally awkward here, imagine this.

You wake up this morning, with your period. You have no pads, no tampons, no toilet at home, indeed no toilet at school or work. You have no money for, or access to, pain relief, which is one of the most overlooked but most debilitating aspects of managing menstruation.

Period poverty is a difficult reality here in the UK. However, for one in three girls in developing countries, there is no safe, private toilet anywhere.

One of the biggest reasons adolescent girls drop out of school in many developing countries is that they simply cannot manage their menstruation. They may resort to ineffective homemade pads made from papers, rags or leaves. And there is nowhere to dispose of these pads, or to wash and change themselves in privacy and comfort. They are teased, and shamed.

A new report from WaterAid and Unicef has revealed that while there is progress in South Asian countries, some 30 percent of girls in that region say menstruation and a lack of school toilets affects their school attendance every month. This limits their opportunities and obstructs their rights to education, well-being and equality.

Consider too the pernicious cultural taboos surrounding menstruation around the world, restricting women’s freedom of movement, and social and cultural engagement. They may not be allowed to visit religious buildings when on their periods; they may not be able to touch other people, including their own babies. They may also have to eat meals separately from men.

Across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, WaterAid supports groundbreaking work on menstrual hygiene, including programmes funded by UK aid from the British people. Girls and boys are taking action, raising awareness, dispelling the myths and changing their communities and futures, all around the world. This is a problem we can solve, with huge impact. It is aid that works.

This July, we will have another moment to create change: world leaders will gather in New York to discuss worldwide progress on providing access to clean water and decent household toilets for everyone, everywhere, by 2030. The bad news is that those promises are off track: 2.3 billion people do not have access to a decent household toilet, 844 million people in the world do not have a clean source of water close to home, and two-thirds of the world’s population now live in areas that experience water scarcity at least one month of the year.

The good news is there is time to address this growing crisis, by each one of us standing up to say that this is not acceptable – in 2018, or at any other time.

We need to support UK aid and organisations such as WaterAid to do more of this crucial development work with girls who need it. We call on the UK government to provide the political and financial support to change this situation. We can be leaders in this area. We need to use our voices to start a conversation.

If even the Royal Family can talk about periods -- TRH the Duke and Duchess of Sussex urged donations in lieu of wedding gifts to the Mumbai-based period-poverty charity Myna Mahila Foundation, among others -- then surely all of us can.

This Menstrual Hygiene Day, on 28 May, I dare you to have a public conversation about periods: with a colleague, a friend, your family. We can all do something to break this bloody taboo.

Let it flow!