Periods. I know, I know, I didn’t exactly ease into it! Sorry if I startled you or made you a little uncomfortable! No one likes talking about them. They’re painful, a mess, and kind of annoying. They’re “girl problems.” But, I mean, that’s the point! To make us uncomfortable and to start a conversation. Menstruation is the most natural phenomenon experienced by every female, however, it is surrounded by an extremely negative stigma around the world. We hide our pads and tampons up our sleeves as we walk to the bathroom, ensuring no one will see them. We whisper to our friends asking for a tampon. We wait for people to leave the bathroom before we unwrap our pads, so no one knows when we are on our periods.
It’s time to start talking about menstruation. And it’s time to start breaking down the stigma.
However, farther from home, in developing countries, the stigma is so much worse than it is in the United States. An article from The New York Times, explains how the stigma so deeply affects their cultures to the core. Girls often do not know what menstruation is prior to getting their first period. They cannot talk to their mothers about it. They do not have access to adequate sanitary products like pads and tampons; instead, they often resort to dirty rags. They cannot cook or enter a kitchen. They cannot enter temples. Girls are often unable to attend schools as there are no bathrooms for them to change out their pads. They believe that they are dirty, impure, and not worthy. Periods should not harm girls’ mental and physical health nor should it hinder their education.
Upon hearing of the extremity of this taboo and how it affects women in India as well as being Indian myself, I was inspired to research more and perhaps find a solution or simply understand why this stigma exists. I was frustrated by the embarrassment that women face regarding their periods in the United States and frustrated by the lack of understanding many men have.
In my senior year of high school, I began a Capstone research project, exploring the menstrual stigma in India. I wanted to start a conversation in my community about menstruation and create simple awareness of how detrimental the stigma is to both girls in the United States and in developing countries.
As a part of my Capstone, I conducted a survey in my hometown of Andover, Massachusetts aimed to gauge participant’s comfort with discussing menstruation. With 520 respondents, the most interesting responses came from the questions that asked: “What code names do you use to discuss menstruation?” The results were widespread, the most prominent being “time of the month,” “Aunt Flo,” and “shark week.” Some also included “the bitch downstairs,” “murder scene,” and “the ruler.” These responses really showed both women’s solidarity in the “lady days” but also revealed that women in the United States also don’t feel comfortable talking about their periods bluntly like in India, rather they feel that they need to use such code names so others do not know when they are on their periods.
Graphic Courtesy of the Author
Menstruation matters. So much so that numerous organizations and campaigns have been launched to support women and girls in developing countries. The Myna Mahila Foundation, based in Mumbai, India, works to generate employment of women in the area, improve the affordability of menstrual hygiene, and to build women’s networks. Myna Mahila has worked with Meghan Markle and was one of the seven charities that donations to the Royal Wedding in May 2018 went to. The main goals of organizations like The Myna Mahila Foundation are to promote female health, provide access to sanitary products, and start a conversation about menstruation in communities of India.
The empowerment of girls is slowly becoming a priority on the global agenda. Closer to UMass, Mount Holyoke College sponsors an annual two-day program called MHC Shakti at the American School of Bombay. The program aims to build girls in grades 11 and 12 voice, confidence, and self-awareness to prepare them to be “the next generation of Indian women leaders.”
And on an even larger scale, you may have heard of the documentary “Period. End of Sentence” which won the Oscar for Best Short Documentary in 2019. The documentary was ground-breaking, highlighting the struggles women in India are facing in regards to menstruation for Hollywood. This documentary started so many conversations, opening many people’s minds. After the Oscar win, while I was in the midst of my Capstone, many people in my community- teachers, faculty, and my peers alike -approached me to ask if I had heard of the documentary and to ask me questions about menstruation in India. They were curious. They wanted to learn more. They wanted to talk.
So, why do we need to be talking about menstruation? It’s to start these conversations: to continue the work of nonprofits; to continue research into menstruation; and perhaps, most importantly, to improve the lives of women and girls so detrimentally harmed by the stigma.
So, I implore you to start being more open. Menstruation matters. Let’s talk.