Just short of fifty percent of the population of the world have periods. Periods are a fact of life – without them, we, men and women, would not exist. They are essential. Yet they are one of the the most stigmatised and taboo subjects in society, branded unhygienic, embarrassing and something which should be kept under wraps. Periods are difficult to cope with at the best of times. Even with access to a wide range of sanitary products, clean bathrooms and in-depth education about reproduction and sex, they cause women and girls pain, hassle and anxiety. So, imagine what it would be like to get your first period and not know what it is, not be able to afford any sanitary care, and not even have a bathroom. Worse, imagine being cast out of your community every time you get your period. Sadly, this is the reality for many women and girls across the world and it is time to address it and speak more openly about it.
Recently the centuries-old practice of chhaupadi came to light in the news as, devastatingly, the deaths of a Nepalese woman and her two sons were reported. Chhaupadi is the practice of banishing women and sometimes her children to a ‘period hut’ on the outskirts of the community whilst she is menstruating. These huts tend to be cold, dirty and windowless sheds without any sanitary products or a toilet. Women are expected to remain there for the duration of their period as during this time they are deemed as bad luck and shameful. Earlier this month, a thirty-five-year-old woman was found dead in one of these huts with her two sons, aged twelve and nine, having been there for four days. They were suffocated by the fumes of a fire they had set up in an effort to stay warm. Chhaupadi was made illegal in 2005 with a three-month jail sentence and a 3,000 rupee fine, yet it is so engrained in the culture of some communities that sadly it still happens in some of the poorer regions in the west of Nepal.
There are many non-profit organisations working to fight against traditions such as Chhaupadi and advocate more sexual-health education and access to sanitary products for women and girls across the world; one of the leading charities in this area being Action Aid. The charity has reported that women are forced to use rags, rugs or sit on old tin cans due to a lack of sanitary products. Roya, a 21-year-old girl, who received help from Action Aid in one of their refugee camps on a Greek Island, said “My mother got her period on the journey and she had nothing with her. She had to rip a dirty piece from her dress and use that. She also found some leaves to use”.
Action Aid explain how women in emergencies and fleeing conflict are especially vulnerable and experience feelings of embarrassment and isolation as they are unable to deal with their periods with dignity. As a charity, they therefore put women at the fore-front of their emergency response work setting up ‘Women Friendly Spaces’. Women can receive support and sanitary products there and it acts as a safe space for women to spend time and deal with their periods.
Action Aid also work closely with communities to improve sexual-health education and facilities for girls in school so that they can still attend school whilst on their period. According to Action Aid, an estimated one in ten girls in Africa miss school whilst on their period. This leads to girls deciding to drop out altogether which causes a greater risk of child marriage. Action Aid provide support in schools so that girls can have toilets, showers and sanitary products available to them, thus ensuring they can always attend school, gaining valuable skills which can help them to avoid poverty in life. If girls do not receive a proper secondary education, this has a huge knock-on effect on their quality of life. Getting a period every month should absolutely not be a factor which holds them back and thankfully charities like Action Aid realise this too.
Action Aid are not the only charity working to improve support for women and girls in this field. Other powerful and important charities include WomenStrong International, Plan International UK and Bloody Good Period. They are all charities which deserve to be more well-known for the fantastic work they do to help women to feel more human, more safe and more powerful. Periods have always happened, periods do happen and periods will always happen – let’s talk about them and let’s support them.