It is normal for girls and women to have their periods, but we’ve also normalized shame, silence and stigma associated with menstruation and its holding girls back. Around the world, periods are seen as being dirty, a topic not to be discussed openly – especially not with boys or men. Supplies are often expensive and taxed and it is uncommon for health classes to cover the subject, leaving girls stressed, scared and unaware of what is happening to their body.
For a natural bodily process that girls and women have no control over, it seems unnatural that menstruation is a barrier keeping girls out of school and preventing them from thriving. The solution to helping eliminate periods as a barrier is having the right hardware and software in place. These terms are often used in reference to technology but they work perfectly for this issue as well.
In the context of periods, hardware refers to supplies like pads, tampons, reusable cloths and infrastructure like clean water, washrooms and soap. During menstruation, some girls and women are able to just go to their local drugstore, pick up what they need and it’s not a problem. But that’s not everyone’s story. Some don’t have access to any supplies and others may only have access to unaffordable options, which leaves them scrambling for any materials they can find like pieces of used old mattresses, clay, old cloth, foliage, etc. These improvised materials are often unsanitary and can lead to serious health complications.
We manage access to supplies in multiple ways. Plan International conducts training sessions in how to make reusable pads. The ability to make safe and hygienic pads provides a way to manage menstruation but also provides women with a source of income. We also partner with local companies who make reusable pads to support the distribution of and increase supply of materials.
Water, washrooms and soap sound like basic amenities that are not specifically related to periods, so why do we mention them? Access to a safe, private, girls-only facility is vital for proper menstrual hygiene management (MHM) but not all schools have appropriate facilities available. MHM projects take this into consideration and will help build these amenities for girls, so that their education is not disrupted by their period.
Software refers to education and training in the context of periods. The more girls, boys, parents, educators and leaders understand about menstruation, the less likely it is that stigma will persist.
In Tanzania, Plan International conducted training for school health teachers (primary and secondary) and reproductive and child care personnel. Some of the goals of the training were to:
- Create an entry point in breaking the silence surrounding menstruation by looking to education provided to young girls when they start menstruation, as well as cultures and beliefs on MHM.
- Create a starting point and willingness on resource mobilization for MHM in schools by the council
- Introduce safe menstrual hygiene management practices with roles and responsibilities in respect to gender
The training focused on WSSCC’s three-pronged approach to MHM including breaking the silence, safe management, and safe reuse or disposal. This approach is designed to make MHM comprehensive and holistic because it focuses on more than just access to supplies – it also tackles the myths surrounding menstruation.
Participants were taught the biology of the menstrual cycle, because if boys and girls understand menstruation as a natural biological process it will enable them to talk about it and break down the silence that often surrounds menstruation. Through a pictorial flip book, they were also taught about changes girls and boys of reproductive age experience and how they could help the youth understand these changes to reduce confusion, fear and stigma.
Menstrual hygiene education helps teachers support girls in their classrooms, educate boys, and reduce the stigma and silence that are associated with periods. MHM education also helps women and girls feel confident and empowered to make informed decisions about how they manage their menstruation.
Periods in Emergencies
Managing periods in crowded, makeshift living situations is much more challenging and lack of safe, sanitary and women-only facilities puts girls and women at risk of violence and harassment. Isn’t access to supplies and pain relief a basic need during times of crises? We believe it is.
“I only get my period once every few months, but during my period I have horrible cramps. It’s so bad, it is completely intolerable, but there is no medication to help,” Jahida says.
Plan International is currently on the ground in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh and has met with teenage Rohingya girls to get a better understanding of just what it’s like to have a period in a crisis environment. As a result, 10,000 menstrual hygiene (or ‘dignity’) kits are being distributed in one of the refugee camps. The kits include a washable cloth as a sustainable alternative to pads that can be reused and won’t clog the latrine systems or cause environmental issues.
The only way to break the silence and stigma around periods is to have open conversations and increase access to education and supplies.