In this day and age, the idea that a normal biological process such as the menstrual cycle can still be enshrouded in misconception, shame, and embarrassment may be difficult to fathom.
Yet in many societies, menstruation continues to be surrounded by stigma and misinformation. Too many girls have little to no knowledge about their periods, and this comes with a serious impact on their lives.
Lack of information on menstrual hygiene affects not only women's and girls' overall health — due to inadequate practices such as using improper or improvised menstrual products — but also their self-esteem.
To raise awareness on the importance of menstrual hygiene management, WASH (WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene) United, a non-profit organization based in Germany that strives to address the global sanitation and hygiene crisis, initiated Menstrual Hygiene Day in 2014.
Under the slogan "Let's end the hesitation around menstruation," WASH United started Menstrualhygieneday.org in an effort to help break the silence and shatter taboos on menstruation by teaching girls worldwide about their menstrual cycle and proper hygiene practices.
Why Teaching Girls About Menstruation Matters
Menstrual Hygiene Day 2017, celebrated each year on May 28, focused on education about menstruation.
According to WASH United, 70 percent of girls in India haven't heard about the menstrual cycle before their first period.
For many girls around the world, getting their first menstruation is not only an uneasy experience but also a downright terrifying one particularly in rural communities, where information about the menstrual cycle and the availability of menstrual hygiene products are scarce.
Menstrualhygieneday.org reports only one out of four girls in Tanzania and Ethiopia know about menstruation before menarche, while in Ethiopia, two out of three girls don't learn about menstruation in school.
For half the girls in India, education about the menstrual cycles is only done by their mothers or friends, and 80 percent of Indian girls at menstruating age use old cloths as absorbents instead of sanitary napkins or tampons.
Moreover, in Uganda, half the girls miss up to three days of school due to menstruation.
To make matters worse, in rural Nepal, women and girls are forced to sleep in separate sheds while menstruating. In India, particularly in religious families, women who are on their periods are not allowed to cook or touch certain foods, such as pickles, due to the widespread belief that food would spoil.
All this emphasizes the urgent need for education in schools so that girls can learn about their bodies and acquire a basic understanding of the physical processes behind menstruation.
Menstrual Education In Schools
Education is vital in helping girls manage menstrual hygiene because it lets them know about the pros and cons of the different menstrual hygiene products.
Lack of education often makes women and girls turn to unhygienic products such as old rags, dirty napkins, or newspapers, which account for 70 percent of vaginal infections.
Menstrual education in schools can provide the necessary knowledge to help girls make informed and confident choices.
Yet to shatter misconceptions and break taboos, boys and men also need to understand how periods work.
"Education for both male and female students is vital to ensure that girls and women are empowered to navigate puberty and stay healthy and confident," shows an article signed by Catarina de Albuquerque, executive chair of Sanitation and Water for All, and Thorsten Kiefer, CEO of WASH United.
De Albuquerque and Kiefer believe schools should provide affordable feminine hygiene products and be equipped with private toilets that have water and soap as well as options for safe disposal of used menstrual products.
The two call for governmental funding for menstrual education as well as building proper sanitation facilities in schools, just like in the case of Kenya — which, following the WASH United initiative, developed a national hygiene policy in 2015 to include the subject in school curricula and improve sanitation in education institutions.
Fighting Menstrual Stigma
Social media has shown a great deal of support for open dialogue regarding the menstrual cycle and the unhindered access to information on the subject.
The #NoShameCampaign, which preceded Menstrual Hygiene Day, running from May 21 to 27, got people of both sexes talking about menstruation.
Women shared stories about how they got their first period and talked about how they're educating their children, both girls and boys, about menstruation.
Also challenging the menstrual taboo, the Instagram campaign #periodpositivity tackled how menstruation is shamed in our society and depicted in the media in a way that has nothing to do with reality.
Alongside social media, print media also has something to say about the stigma of menstruation. German authors Eva Wünsch and Luisa Stömer have published a book titled Ebbe und Blut (Ebb and Blood), which reveals everything "about the tides of the female cycle" in an attempt to help women better understand their bodies.
"We've all seen naked bodies and breasts a thousand times, and we can watch porn everywhere. But when it comes to menstruation, there's total denial," says Wünsch.
At the same time, Stömer believes the way feminine hygiene products are advertised — representing menstrual blood by a blue liquid, in a manner that she finds "inhibited" — speaks volumes on societal shame and taboos.
"They always show women skipping about in white clothes as if they had no problems during their period. That completely ignores the reality," Stömer points out.