Menstruation Stigma Must Stop. Period.

Menstruation. It’s a necessary biological function experienced by half of the global population yet still a dirty word in countries all over the world. The stigma around menstruation is further exemplified by the many euphemisms that exist for the term: “time of the month,” “period,” “female troubles,” “Aunt Flo,” “on the rag,” and many more. And that’s just in English.

A study conducted by the International Women’s Health Coalition found that there are about 5,000 slang words used to refer to menstruation in 10 different languages. Though using euphemisms may seem innocuous, it is indicative of a larger trend in attitudes regarding menstrual health around the globe.

Menstruation is a shared experience among all females — females everywhere understand what it is like to get her first period, and most females experience the same symptoms. And yet, menstruation is also a widely stigmatized issue. It is a topic that people are usually uncomfortable talking about and is typically a topic that is only discussed behind closed doors. This is because cultures all over the world have developed detrimental concepts and beliefs about menstruation.

Because of the taboos surrounding menstruation in many parts of the world, there is a significant lack of health education resources available to people about the menstrual cycle. It is this lack of knowledge that fuels myths which ostracize and humiliate women during their monthly cycles.

For example, in Venezuela, many women are forced to sleep in huts for the duration of their menstruation. In rural Ghana, menstruating women are forbidden from entering a house with a man or cooking food. Many young women don’t have access to any type of sanitary pad, which can cause them to miss school and cause them to be 70% more likely to have reproductive tract infections.

In addition, in Kenya, studies have shown that girls will miss an average of four days of school each month — adding up to about 20% of the school year. Women face discrimination, harassment, and are looked down upon because of menstruation, as it is seen as a form of weakness rather than a necessary biological function.

Recently, a 2014 study in Nairobi’s Mathare Valley slum found that over 75% of girls had no idea what menstruation was before they got their first period. This caused them to feel anxious, confused and ashamed about their periods.

As a solution to this issue, educational programs are being implemented by non-governmental organizations such as Femme International to teach women about their menstrual health as well as instructing men that menstruation does not make women unclean or unfit to perform normal tasks such as praying, studying, and cooking.

Another solution to the stigma is addressing the outdoor bathrooms in developing countries that are not built with feminine needs in mind. According to researchers at UC Berkeley’s Blum Centers for Developing Economies, many portable restrooms that are built in rural communities are designed solely to keep fecal matter out of the water supply and are not accommodating to pregnant or menstruating women.

As a result, many young girls often will toss their menstrual hygiene products into the latrine, which can cause clogging, or will throw it into nature, which is not an environmentally sustainable practice. In addition, many females will put their used products into their bags and carry them around, which is unhygienic.

Isha Ray, a professor who is currently conducting research at the Blum Center’s Development Impact Lab, believes that creating restrooms that are built with female hygiene as a consideration could work as a potential solution to the problem. “If sanitation programs are designed for female needs, they will also serve male needs and disabled needs,” said Ray.

Building restrooms with menstruating women in mind can help solve many of these issues that often act as a barrier for women to gain education and employment, and these solutions may ultimately be able to address gender inequities in developing countries all around the world.

Through increasing education, promoting female empowerment, providing expanded resources, and encouraging candid conversations surrounding women’s health, menstruation may one day no longer be a taboo but will be celebrated for the natural experience that it is.