De-stigmatising a natural body function: let’s talk about menstruation!

On May 28th we celebrate menstrual hygiene day to raise awareness on the importance of menstrual hygiene management and to change negative social norms about menstruation around the world.  Why is it the 28th of May you may wonder? The answer is simple: The average menstruation cycle lasts 28 days, during which girls and women have their period on average for 5 days. Menstruation is still considered a taboo topic all over the world even though it is a normal biological process that is key to maintaining the reproductive health of women. 

The Stigma around Menstruation

Menstruation is not openly discussed and dealt with secretly all over the world.

Lack of education on this matter, however, has fatal consequences. Women and girls worldwide face numerous challenges in managing their menstruation. In many cultures, they are perceived as dirty and impure while menstruating. This leads to many restrictions for girls and women when they have their period. For instance, drinking milk, preparing food, interacting with people or refraining from performing religious rituals are just some examples. Women are forbidden to bathe or cleanse themselves properly during these days, which increases the threat posed to their health due to lack of menstrual hygiene. Furthermore, they also are afraid to go to school or work since often these places lack facilities like clean water, soap, and washrooms.

In addition to exclusion from social, cultural and religious activities, hygiene sanitary products can be unavailable or unaffordable. Globally, a minimum of 500 million women experiences period poverty every month. Menstruation products are extremely difficult to access because of their high cost even though they are a vital necessity. They are still perceived as luxury products and in many countries, they are subjected to the value-added tax (VAT), also known as the “pink tax”.

The importance of menstrual hygiene

The lack of education on this matter and the cultural shame attached to menstruation leads to the use of unhealthy ways to collect menstrual waste. Girls and women are forced to use old clothes, rags and sawdust as an alternative to sanitary hygiene products. Clothes used as sanitary napkins are often washed without detergents and dried indoors, out of shame and fear of superstitions related to menstruation. This often means that the clothes remain damp, which can lead to infections. Period poverty and forced poor menstrual hygiene can pose various physical health risks such as reproductive and urinary tract infections, high incidents of genital rashes and a high risk for cervical cancer.

Additionally, many lack access to safe toilet and handwashing facilities with clean water. According to UNICEF, 2.3 billion people lack basic sanitation services and in Least Developed Countries only 27% of the population has a handwashing facility with water and soap at home. Managing periods at home is, therefore, a major challenge for women and adolescent girls who lack these basic facilities.

An important issue that is often overlooked is menstrual hygiene management in emergency situations, conflict-affected areas or in the aftermath of natural disasters. In such situations, the usual lifestyle of affected individuals changes and they are confronted with additional stress that can worsen their physical and psychological well-being. Provision of fundamental aid such as shelter, food, clean water and medicines is prioritised, however other needs such as safe menstrual hygiene management, the lack of which can have a profound psychosocial impact, are often neglected.

Discriminatory cultural norms, lack of education, limited access to hygienic menstrual products and poor sanitation infrastructure undermine the educational opportunities, health and overall social status of women and girls around the world. As a result, millions are kept from reaching their full potential and are denied basic human rights.

The Link to Child Marriage

The cultural shame attached to menstruation stops girls and women from going to school and work every day in many parts of the world. This means that girls on average miss 5 days of school a month because of difficulties in managing the bleeding and social stigma around menstruation. For example, the absence rate in school in Nepal is 41% and in Kenya even 86% for menstruating girls. Most schools do not include facilities to assist girls during their period. This kind of absenteeism leads to them missing out on lessons and achieving poor grades, which can contribute to parents questioning the value of girls’ education.

Schools can also become a hostile environment for girls entering puberty. They may face sexual harassment on their way to or from school or from their peers or teachers. Parents who fear that school is unsafe for their unmarried daughters may view marriage as an acceptable solution to protect them and their family’s honour. Young girls who do not receive an education are more likely to enter child marriages and experience an early pregnancy, malnourishment, domestic violence, and pregnancy complications as a result. Research has shown that when girls have access to appropriate sanitary products and facilities, and they understand what is happening to their bodies, they are more likely to stay in school and out of marriage.

How to Break the Stigma?

The first step is to normalize menstruation. It is a natural and healthy body function and not something to be ashamed or afraid of. To achieve menstrual equity and break the silence around menstruation we need to strengthen education on this topic as well as improve availability, affordability, and access to sanitary items, particularly in schools and workplaces. We also need to improve the sanitation and hygiene of washing facilities and give women a safe way to change and dispose of soiled products. Educating girls and boys on menstruation at an early age at home and school promotes healthy habits and breaks stigmas around this natural process. Young boys also benefit from menstrual hygiene education. 

Menstrual Hygiene Day is a global advocacy platform that brings together the voices and actions of non-profits, government agencies, individuals, the private sector and the media to promote good menstrual health and hygiene (MHH) for all women and girls. It especially engages decision-makers to increase the political priority and catalyse action for menstrual hygiene at global, national, and local levels with the goal of ending period poverty by 2030. For that to happen we need to work together and challenge social norms, talk openly about menstruation and spread awareness and education. 

Let’s break the silence around menstrual hygiene together!

 Want to find out more about this issue? Here are some useful resources:

Gender Equality: a win for everyone

Today, the 8th of March, marks an important date not only for women but for our whole society. We would therefore like to take this essential occasion of international women’s day to talk about the importance of gender equality and why it is a win for everyone.  

The term gender equality has raised more and more attention in the last couple of years. But very often when we think of gender equality, we only think about women and their benefit. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest misunderstandings in history! Gender equality is a better option for everyone because it allows equal chances and rights without discrimination or biases. This means that women can have a career if they want to but also that men don’t need to be the sole breadwinners and can decide whether they want to work full time, part-time or not at all. Ultimately, gender stereotypes are a thing of the past! 

The decision to have children and start a family is a crucial point for many women and men in deciding for or against their career. Since childcare is limited and expensive, young parents often have to decide who will spend more time at home with the children. In the majority of cases the decision falls on the mother for two reasons:

  1. The traditional mindset: which views women as better childcarers.
  2. The pay gap: many women earn less on average than their male companions.

In Switzerland, for example, there is a pay gap of 11.4% and more than half of it is unexplained. Here and in many other countries, only one out of 50 companies has a woman as CEO (SMI-Expanded). Female representation in management teams is below 10% and you mostly find women in the so-called low power positions such as HR and Communication. Iceland takes the worldwide lead with 30% of women CEOs
Consistent research shows that diverse teams bring better results because mixed gendered teams make better decisions and are more innovative. As the world gets more and more complex, there is a demand for many different skill sets. In the future, we will need as many different skills as possible and women bring other skills to the table than men. 

But there are not only business-related topics that show that our society needs to change. Across the globe, many causes keep driving the gap between genders such as uneven access to education, employment and healthcare not to mention the many forms of gender-based violence countless women are subjected to. Many causes of structural inequality such as menstruation, child-marriages and female genital mutilation, are considered a taboo topic in many parts of the world and urgently need to be destigmatized if we are to achieve a more equal world.  

Here are a few facts that clearly depict certain structural inequalities: 

  • Girls and women pay a high tax on hygiene articles such as tampons and pads, whereas condoms for example are not taxed.
  • In developing countries at least 30% and up to 95% of girls are missing school because of their periods and the stigmatization around it, therefore losing crucial steps in their education
  • 80% of medicine in the US is taken by women, but the effect it has on them is mostly unknown, as medical research is mostly conducted on men.
  • Despite ongoing research on birth control pills for men, this product has never been launched on the market because of its side effects. The birth control pill for women has the exact same side effects but has been on the market for decades. 
  • Women have a 47% higher chance of getting severely injured in a car accident because safety features are designed for men

These are but a few specific examples of some of the structural causes of increasing inequality. According to the UN Gender Pay Gap Report, it will take us almost another 200 years to achieve true gender equality if we continue down this path. So, all of us need to take action now! 

What women can do 

Nothing. In the past years women were expected to change in order to fit in a male-dominated environment. But what we should be doing is fixing the system and not women’s behaviour. Having said that, women can be more confident, visible, speak up their minds, trust in their skills, stop pampering their partners and lift up their female friends. 

What men can do 

Equality begins at home. Only if family work is equally distributed, can we have a chance to achieve real equality. Men can divide the tasks and responsibilities at home equally with their partners. Additionally, they can empower their partners in their environment to follow their dreams. It is also crucial that men call out inequality and injustice when they become aware of it, whether in the workplace, at home or in any other context. 

What companies can do

Companies need to de-bias the system so that women get a fair chance of being a part of it. What does that mean? For example, male recruiters often unconsciously prefer male candidates. To avoid such unconscious bias, a company should have a diverse recruitment team. Another step companies can do, is to offer flexible working models to men and women so that parents can better handle the rush hours of their lives. Paid parental leave for both parents is also another way of ensuring that both members of a couple can continue their careers after having a child. 

What politics can do

Governments need to take more action so as to structurally create a more equal and balanced system. For example, a tax system that rewards households where both partners are working, like in Sweden. Another great opportunity is to offer a good childcare infrastructure. For instance, in Canada, one day in childcare only costs 2 francs, thanks to high subsidies. Equally helpful is the introduction of all-day schools, which allows both parents to work full-time.  

Last but not least the world of Academia and Media plays a big role. The academic world, for instance, needs to develop a system that does not repeat stereotypes, especially in the STEM areas. It should make sure that children do not only see traditional gender roles and gendered professions but rather develop a tolerant and liberal understanding of gender. The media on the other hand needs to stop representing women as sexual objects and start to create new images of women instead. This can be made possible by increasing the share of women’s voices in scientific matters for instance. It can also be very useful in destigmatizing taboo topics and creating not only awareness but also a discussion around them. 

Standing up for women does not mean abandoning the male gender. On the contrary: breaking away from old stereotypes means setting new possibilities for everyone. We must use this day and see it as an opportunity to make the world a fairer, more tolerant and ultimately more equal place not only for women but for society as a whole.