Ditch the Euphemisms: Menstrual Hygiene Day Calls Out Period Taboos

The annual day of awareness helps debunk myths associated with the monthly occurrence.

A Burundi girl crouches beneath women in line. (Photo: Daniel Hayduk/Getty Images)

May 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Every day, 800 million women around the world are experiencing “that time of the month.” That time that no one likes to call attention to in public, when women and girls smuggle necessary products for frequent trips to the restroom. But cramps, cravings, and a touch of moodiness are just the tip of the iceberg. For women and girls in developing countries, menstruating can be downright dangerous.

Thursday marks Menstrual Hygiene Day, an effort to raise awareness about the plight of women around the world who don’t have access to private bathrooms or hygienic supplies and face ostracization for experiencing a natural part of womanhood.

Providing women and girls with access to feminine hygiene products and a private place to manage their period is imperative in helping women succeed internationally.

Most girls in developed countries aren’t shocked to discover blood on their underwear once they hit puberty. But the taboo of talking about menstruation leaves many girls in Southeast Asian and African countries shocked and frightened at the sight of their first period. More than 70 percent of Indian girls had no idea what was happening to them when they started their period, according to a report from World Toilet. Young girls from Indonesia, Malawi, Burundi, and Uganda all shared stories about experiencing shame and fear during their first menstrual cycle with Plan International, a child rights advocacy group.

So, Why Should You Care? While organizations like Plan International are helping equip schools in Africa with pads and tampons, many girls are still forced to skip school during their period. And it’s not just access to sanitary pads and tampons that’s the problem. Private bathrooms and trash bins for girls to dispose used products and packaging can go a long way in making them feel safe and comfortable.

Repeatedly missing school can lead to girls dropping out altogether. Rates of primary school completion are 10 percent higher for boys than for girls—56 and 46 percent, respectively—in African countries. Lower levels of education contribute to a cycle of poverty and marginalization, leaving women vulnerable to more menial jobs and increasing their likelihood of marrying young, UNICEF reports.

Conditions don’t always improve when girls move out of their teenage years. Pads and tampons are hard to come by in rural areas. Not only are they sold in only select stores, but they may be too expensive to afford. In Bangladesh, for example, 60 percent of women reported using factory-floor rags in place of pads and tampons, leading to dangerous infections and missed work.

Stigmas and superstitions about a woman’s menstrual cycle reinforce limited access to necessary products. Superstitions vary from country to country, with girls being told their period made them impure, or being forbidden from cooking or bathing for the duration of their period, or forced to stay indoors.

In hopes of turning the taboo on its head, WaterAid, an organization committed to providing sanitary water and private toilets around the world, released a comical video called “Manpons.” In an imagined world where men have monthly cycles and NASA engineers tampons, periods are no longer a source of embarrassment. Bringing men into the conversation to openly discuss menstruation can help tackle the stigma in largely patriarchal societies and encourage women and girls to embrace their cycle with pride instead of shame.