The Bloody Truth
A female's menarche marks her very first period, and thus her sexual maturity. Transitioning from girl to women, now capable of sexual reproduction. A young girl at the tender age of 12, will feel two very new sensations which society sadly projects upon her. The first bleed will make a young girl feel “dirty” and “different”. She may or may not have been told when she can expect to have her first bleed. Or that periods even exist, making her first encounter all the more traumatic. She may or may not be told how to use sanitary supplies or how often to change them, or have access to these at all. She may or may not be told that periods are accompanied by pain and mood swings, which is normal. She may or may not have the support of her female friends and family. She most certainly won’t seek this support from the men in her life. Which she will now feel irreversibly isolated from. She will be told to never speak of her period in public. And to hide sanitary products away from the eyes of everyone, even her own mother. She will face distressing situations such as leaking through her school skirt. Or having to change but will have nowhere appropriate to dispose of her bloody mess. She may accidentally fall back asleep early morning, forgetting to change. And in her slumber leak all over her bedsheets. Awakening to a bloody mess. She quickly removes the dirty linen, desperately cleaning the stains before anyone notices. She may end up with almost all of her panties stained. Feeling dirty and embarrassed. She may opt for black underwear, to disguise these shameful stains. She may or may not have the financial support to have enough fresh pairs of sanitary products. Having to risk the toilet paper trick which shatters any little remaining confidence. Since a new menstruator will leak frequently before getting into the swing of things. She may keep the same tampon in for far too long or use a more absorbent one just to save some money. Risking her health and chances of contracting UTIs and/or Toxic Shock Syndrome. She may perceive her period as something that holds her back. She cannot brave going to school, fearing stigma and ridicule and thus stays home. Letting her period dictate her liberty and ability to learn and progress. She may feel so ashamed that she simply pretends as if her period does not exist. As if she is not losing litres of blood, as if her belly isn't in pain and bloated, as if she isn’t constantly on the verge of tears. She may seek painkillers to hide her pain or the oral contraceptive pill to make her period go away entirely. She will do whatever it takes to suppress and hide this natural cycle. Even at the cost of her fertility and ability to have a family of her own. She may start to feel self-conscious of the way her period blood smells. Seeking sanitary supplies soaked in chemical fragrances. Risking her health to hide her offensive period from those around her. She may go cycle after cycle never truly knowing why her vagina is bleeding monthly. Or why she is so angry or sad or anxious. She may never question why people want nothing to do with her period. Or why half of the population, being female, keep her same shameful dirty secret.
This perception that periods are dirty stems from ancient history. This stigma continues into modern times. In parts of South Africa, menstruating women and girls cannot touch water or cook. They cannot attend religious ceremonies, or engage in community activities. This is because menstruating women are still seen by society as unclean.
In some communities, a girls menarche (the onset of menstruation) is associated with the readiness for marriage. A girl can experience her first period from any age between 10-16 years. The first bleed, resembles a girls sexual maturity and ability to reproduce. This association between a girls menarche and child marriage undermines women rights. And increases the risk of adolescent pregnancies.
“For the Love of Periods”
Young uneducated girls living in poverty do not have access to sanitary supplies. Kenyan school girls engage in transactional sex to pay for menstrual products. This exchange of sex for supplies violates women rights. Exposing girls to violence and sexually transmitted infections.
“Daughters are an Economic Burden”
Many young girls, who legally cannot earn an income, feel guilty about their periods. They believe that the cost of menstrual products is an economic burden to caregivers. This is often projected upon them in times when money is already scarce.
“Work is Stressful Enough”
Women around the world experience limited access to sanitation facilities in the workplace. Without proper facilities, menstruating women cannot confidently or safely attend work. And thus, feel forced to stay at home. Periods should not limit a women's success nor be the reason for lost wages.
“Our Dirty Secret”
Many girls fear going to school when menstruating, due to stigma and ridicule. School absences impact a girl's opportunity to succeed in life.
This shame is intensified for any menstruating women living with HIV. People with HIV are stigmatised that their blood is always infectious. This shame prevents menstruating women with HIV from talking about their periods. Thus, potential issues such as access to sanitary supplies and period pain is kept quiet.
Members of the transgender community also endure period shame and stigma. Public male bathrooms, do not always provide private cubicles or sanitary bins. The best option for transgender men would be gender-neutral toilets. Although these aren't always easy to come by.
Some girls and women experience periods with excruciating pain known as dysmenorrhea. This condition can impact a girl's ability to walk and function when menstruating. Dysmenorrhea is frequently reported but appropriate support is seldom provided. Dysmenorrhea affects school or work attendance, hindering the success of girls and women. Painful periods are an economic burden due to dependence on painkillers. Not to mention the negative impact of long-term NSAIDs (painkillers) use.
“Periods in Prison”
A Zimbabwean woman was arrested, beaten and tortured by police. During her 30-day imprisonment, she was refused medical care and menstrual supplies. Denied access to sanitary products is common for many women in prison. Women have no choice but to tear up blankets and rags to try and contain their bleeding. In prisons, menstruating women are unable to clean themselves, due to a lack of running water. There are no sanitary bins and thus nowhere to dispose of bloody rags.
This lack of access to sanitation facilities and supplies is not an isolated issue within prisons. It extends to all women living in poor rural communities as well as refugees living in displacement camps.