One in three women and girls on this planet do not have access to a toilet when they menstruate, and 70 percent of women feel stigmatised or ashamed about their period.
Three cheers then for international Menstrual Hygiene Day (MHD) on May 28. Three years ago a global coalition came together to help bust some myths around what — on any given day — more than 800 million girls and women between the ages of 15 and 49 are doing. However, despite these numbers, talking about it remains taboo. This silence has created some pretty fantastic at best, misogynistic at worse, ideas around menstruation dating back centuries.
Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History (circa A.D. 77) about what happens when a woman has her period: “Her very look, even, will dim the brightness of mirrors, blunt the edge of steel, and take away the polish from ivory. A swarm of bees, if looked upon by her, will die immediately.” Don’t laugh, because nearly two millennia later the British Medical Journal harrumphed in 1878 that a menstruating woman would cause bacon to putrefy. Today girls and women are still in some cultures considered unclean during their period and, depending on cultural beliefs, are segregated, banned from religious activities and not allowed to come near food for fear of contamination.
But one of the biggest issues is the lack of sanitation. Those girls and women without a toilet are forced to find somewhere, typically after dark, which puts them at risk to harassment or attack. I have written before about the ramifications of pubescent girls dropping out of school for want of some privacy and clean water at school.
A pair of sisters wants to change some of this. Three cheers for period panties! Twin sisters Miki and Radha Agrawal have invented ‘period-proof’ panties. Thinx underwear is washable and reusable, utilizes microfibre technology and comes in different styles to match your monthly flow. The sisters say their panties are a response to the heaving U.S. landfills where 12 billion pads and 7 million tampons are dumped every year. Operating as a social enterprise means proceeds from Thinx sales go to training women in developing nations to manufacture and sell affordable, reusable pads locally.
Access to hygiene products isn’t too much of an issue now in Vietnam and Article 115 in the Vietnamese Labour Code recognises a woman’s right to a daily 30-minute break without salary penalty when she is menstruating. Yet the menstrual myths persist. A health survey here found that female factory workers believe your hair will fall out and you’ll get dark circles under your eyes if you take a bath during your period. (Some of my sophisticated urban girlfriends believe the same thing.) Silence feeds superstition and ignorance. Girls continue to think they cannot become pregnant while menstruating, don’t seek help for endometriosis, won’t go swimming or play sports, or that tampons can ‘disappear’ in your vagina.
Taxes on necessities like tampons and pads, enforcing taboos, embarrassment if a tampon falls out of your purse (but toilet paper and tissue in your bathroom is A-OK), and using euphemisms are part and parcel of the silence that leads to superstition, ignorance and sexism. And all that on a completely normal and healthy body function. Yawns and sneezes are also regulatory functions that don’t provoke berserk reactions. Time to get off that antiquated shame wagon.
Dana McNairn is the CEO of KOTO, an award-winning nonprofit social enterprise providing vocational training for at-risk youth