MAY 28TH, the first ever Menstrual Hygiene Day, marked the end of a 28-day global campaign that has worked to spread awareness about menstruation, promote menstrual hygiene and break down period taboos and myths. Governments, NGOs and the private sector have joined forces this month, throughout ‘May Menstravaganza’, in an attempt to spread the messages of the campaign. They aim to lessen the suffering endured by millions of women across the globe every month.
Half the world’s population menstruate for, on average, 5 days of every month for 40 years – that’s 2,400 periods in a lifetime. Menstruation is part of being a woman, a natural biological process, and a sign of good health. However, for many women, predominantly in low to middle income countries, menstruation is something to be feared. For these women, menstruation is synonymous with mistreatment, marginalisation and disempowerment.
Menstruation myths and practices
Despite being outlawed in 2005, the practice of Chhaupadi in Western Nepal persists. Chhaupadi is a social tradition whereby women are segregated during menstruation because they are seen as ‘impure’ and ‘contaminated’. Girls as young as 9 years old are separated from their family and forced to sleep in makeshift sheds, or ‘goths’, in remote areas often miles from their village. Several girls and women may be piled into the tiny sheds with no room to move or lie down at night. The company of fellow menstruating women, however, is not unwelcome as they may offer some protection from the dangers of confinement. Women in menstrual confinement sheds are regularly raped by men who conveniently forget about untouchability. Snakebites and mosquitoes also threaten the lives of these girls and women.
This inhumane treatment of menstruating women is not unique to Nepal, and around the world ‘polluted’ girls and women are marginalised and disempowered. Forbidden from touching food or eating with their family, women in Bangladesh are thrown a spoon of rice whilst hiding outside their home as if they were dogs. In India, a menstruating woman is believed to be so contaminated that her touching a cow will render the animal infertile. In Kenya, malnutrition takes hold every month as women are prohibited from eating dairy products or meat for the duration of their period. In Afghanistan, a woman will be punished for just touching a man during her period. In many countries, menstruating women are banished from places of worship, and it is only once they have been ‘purified’ at the end of their period that they can return to their family and to normal life.
The suffering continues
The myths, beliefs and practices surrounding menstruation not only humiliate, punish and dehumanise millions of girls and women, but also endanger their development and future prospects. Education can be severely jeopardised by the stigma that is attached to menstruation. Girls often stop attending school when they reach puberty, or miss school for a week every month during their period. Many schools lack access to clean water and sanitation so girls are unable to deal with menstrual bleeding. Even when toilets are provided, they are often unisex, which strips girls of the much needed privacy and dignity. Similarly, women regularly have to take time off work due to the menstrual confinement to which they are subjected, and due to common infections and illnesses that result from poor menstrual hygiene. Most women lack access to affordable sanitary materials, such as pads or tampons, and are consequently forced to use horrific substitutes, such as chemical ridden rags found on factory floors. Missing work can have dire consequences for these women, many of whom already live below the poverty line.
Time for change
NGOs, governments and private organisations are working together to overcome the practical restrictions on menstrual freedom. Together they aim to improve access to clean water, toilets, affordable sanitary materials, and safe means of disposal both in homes and in public places. This will allow women to continue life as normal and manage their periods in privacy and with dignity. Education and gynaecological awareness will not only improve menstrual hygiene, but will also go some way towards breaking the silence and taboos of menstruation. Whilst ensuring that all women have access to these services and facilities is currently a way off, their attainment does not seem unrealistic.
However, perhaps more unrealistic at present, and perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcome, is the gender inequality that is inherent in this issue. In male-dominated countries, the barbaric treatment of menstruating women serves to reinforce the inferiority of women and increase gender inequality. As men do not experience menstruation, the first challenge is to gain male recognition of this issue, and then to gain male support and to override a predominantly male-dominated discourse. The dangerous misconceptions, taboos and traditions must be over-ruled in both law and practice. As human rights stem from the fundamental right to human dignity, it is imperative that dignity is returned to girls and women. In turn, their right to education, work and health will be restored. Only then will we see true progress.
This month’s Menstrual Hygiene Day campaign has helped to spread the menstruation message and has rallied much support for the cause. In this day and age no women should be punished for being a woman. We must break the silence, destroy the taboos and dispel the myths in order to achieve the gender equality that we claim to strive for.
By Verity Brighton
You can read more of Verity’s work at http://veritybrighton.com/