Why is something as natural as sweating or hunger still stigmatized? Shame and secrecy are attached to something that effects half the population on Earth once a month. The embarrassment shrouding the discussion effects women’s self-esteem, education, equality, and in developing countries, their health.
Myths and stories from biblical times continue to permeate our society. In ancient Jerusalem, red tents were put up to keep women, who had their periods, inside because they were seen as dirty and untouchable. While not so extreme as that, shadows of these ideologies can still be seen in Ireland and internationally today.
I don’t think I’ve ever had an open and direct conversation with a woman about periods. It feels awkward for us both. It shouldn’t, but it does. Embarrassingly, I had thought, up until very recently that periods were just one bit of blood that fell out of a vagina once a month. At home, if I open a press and see a tampon I almost freak out. Even writing this article I’m struggling.
In primary school girls and boys were split up for sexual education. The fact that the majority of schools in Ireland are Catholic can feed into this. Rather than objective information about sex, and menstruation emphasis is placed on pregnancy, STIs, and in some cases abstinence. No wonder we’re so sexually repressed.
Having gone to an all boys secondary school, the idea of what periods were remained a mystery to me. There was essentially no discussion of menstruation apart from one uncomfortable SPHE class. The only other times i can think of when it was talked about was if one of the female teachers was in a bad mood the obvious “She must be on her period” jokes circulated the classroom.
We were young when we’d make comments like that, but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if one of my friends said that today. That kind of language just fuels the stigma attached to periods. How are we supposed to achieve an equal society if there’s still an attitude that women are completely irrational when they’re on their periods. This kind of rhetoric can feed into the idea that women shouldn’t be in powerful positions.
Maybe if there were a few more women in powerful positions the nonsensical luxury tax on sanitary products wouldn’t exist.
A product that is a hygienic necessity to half of our population is considered a ‘luxury item’ and taxed appropriately. A women will pay upwards of €3000 in Ireland from the time her menstrual cycle starts until it finishes. If anything this is irrational.
The Developing World
The stigma doesn’t stop at our borders, it has major consequences for girls and women in developing countries. In India menstruation is a taboo subject. Myths surrounding menstruation still exist in society and are perpetuated by the lack of awareness and openness to discussion about menstruation. Women on their periods are forbidden from engaging in activities such as visiting temples, drinking from the water supply, washing their hair and in some cases are not allowed to eat rice or cold foods.
In a lot developing countries there is no formal education on menstruation. Leading girls to feel ashamed, alone and fearing they are sick when they first have their periods. Along with no education on the matter there are no facilities in schools to change and dispose of sanitary pads. The stigma already surrounding periods makes this an extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing experience for young girls. Girls miss school once a month, and in some cases drop out entirely after their menstrual cycle first begins. In Eastern Africa as much as 1/10 girls do not go to school during their period.
A lack of education about menstrual hygiene leads to unhygienic practices. 70% of reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene. This has a significant effect on the maternal mortality rates of women in India.
If girls are to ask their mother, they are simply handed a pad or cloth and instructed to use it monthly. In urban areas girls often use reusable cloths. These clothes should be dried in the sun, however, women are often too embarrassed to do so. This means that they will not be disinfected for their next use. In rural areas women often use sand, sawdust, leaves and ash instead of a sanitary pad.
If in Ireland, a very progressive and developed society, we can’t openly talk about menstrual hygiene and address the issues and stigmas around it, how can we expect the problems faced by girls in developing countries to be addressed?
By Ciaran Boyle