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Period poverty and breaking taboos

It’s that time of the month again. You have the cramps, the bloating, the cravings - the works. You leave work early, pick up some painkillers and chocolate on the way home and make a nest on your sofa for an evening of bingeing the latest box set. 

Now imagine you’ve just got your period, but you’re a 14-year-old girl living in rural Nepal. You have no pads or sanitary products. You can’t go to school. You can’t talk to anyone. You can’t touch or prepare food. You can’t eat with your family. You can’t even sleep in your house. You’re ashamed and alone. And you have nowhere private, clean or safe to deal with the blood flow.

A stark difference, isn’t it?

The curse culture

There are 256, 624, 223 million girls in less developed countries who are 10-15 years old - the age when they’re likely to get their first period. In some areas, such as rural Nairobi, as many as 75% of these girls have no idea what menstruation is, let alone any understanding of the limitations they’re about to face.

Sushma, a 17 year-old girl from Nepal who faced huge restrictions when she started her period.

Meet Sushma. She’s 17 years old and lives in the village of Sirthauli in Nepal. Although there are fewer myths around menstruation here than in some other parts of Nepal, Sushma still faced huge restrictions when she started her periods. She wasn’t allowed out in the sun, she couldn’t comb her hair or even look in the mirror. She wasn't allowed to touch drinking water, fruit or other food. She wasn't allowed to cross the river or interact with any male members of her family.

We might refer to having a period as ‘the curse’, but for girls like Sushma, she was literally treated like she was evil and sinful - every month, just for being a girl.

When Sushma got her first period she was kept away from her home for 22 days, forced to sleep in a community house away from her family. She was alone, vulnerable and had no idea what was happening to her. 

“We were not even allowed to move around and had to remain seated in the same place. We were not able to eat fruit and drink milk and things like that. We just knew that it happens to all girls, but we didn’t really know the reasons why and what should we do in that time. So we used to feel scared, hesitant and ignorant. I used to think that having menstruation is a curse.”

Time for change

WaterAid has already started work in areas such as Sushma’s village to tackle the issue of period taboos. Workshops were run with women and girls so they had the chance to talk openly about periods as a starting point to break this culture of wrongful shaming. The girls were encouraged to take photos to document the issues they faced when they were menstruating.

Sushma writing on the blackboard of her school, which now has better facilities.

The scheme also built better toilet facilities in schools and taught girls the facts about periods and menstrual hygiene.

Sushma no longer feels ashamed and confused by her periods. She feels empowered and wants to train as a nurse to help other girls grow up without the stigma that she faced.

“My message to younger generations is to not feel shy in expressing yourself. Be fearless and voice your opinion and stay strong."

Let them be heard

Three school girls from a school in Pakistan, which runs workshops to end period shame.

Ramsha (middle) is 13 years old and lives in Pakistan. She got her period when she was 11. Here, periods are shrouded in secrecy and negativity. The only thing most pre-menstrual girls are aware of is that ‘something bad’ will happen to them soon. Something which shouldn’t be discussed.

Ramsha says: “When I started my period, my grandmother told me that I shouldn't eat meat, eggs and milk. According to her, these were harmful to me. We are so secretive about periods.”

WaterAid hopes to break the silence in these areas by providing better education about what periods are and how to manage them hygienically and safely, along with building cleaner facilities for girls. This change means that the girls who couldn’t talk about what was happening to them each month are finally finding their voices.

During workshops run at her school, Ramsha found out that menstruation wasn’t a sinful curse, but a normal, natural part of her life. One that she shouldn’t feel ashamed of. She says: “I was hesitant to ask questions at first, but during follow-up sessions, I started asking them to explain some of the myths, which are prevalent in our community.”

Focussing on the future

Such vast differences in culture can sometimes be hard to get your head around. Respecting different traditions and beliefs is one thing, but when a natural bodily function is isolating women and girls from their communities and stopping them from living healthy, safe and dignified lives, it’s time to break the taboos.

The work WaterAid is doing is a significant start, but there are still so many superstitions that are heavily ingrained in some societies. We can help empower girls to disrupt these cycles of lies and build brighter futures not just for them, but for future generations.

So what can you do?

For a start, let’s just bloody talk about it. Having more open conversations about periods at home, at work and with your friends is a good way to start breaking down the secrecy and stigmas around bleeding.

You can also be a part of the Fempowered movement to help us grow and reach our ambition of empowering all women to live their lives with dignity. Subscribing to receive a Fempowered box in the post is not only kind to the environment, by using sustainable and fair-trade period products, but is a brilliant way to support other women all over the world. The period taboos can come to an end - starting with a change today.

May 22, 2019 — Team Fempowered