I remember when I first got my period. It was during the school holidays and I was staying in my parents’ old beach house. I was almost 15 and what you might call a “late bloomer”. My first reaction was shock (what the hell is this?!), then excitement (finally, I got it, can’t wait to tell the girls at school), then anguish (what do I do now? Uh oh, awkward conversation with mum coming up).
Like a lot of teenagers, I found many conversations difficult – and topics like menstruation were particularly hard. But when I told my mother in a sheepish voice, “I think I just got my period” she had a brilliant reaction – she hugged me and her eyes welled up with tears, “you’re becoming a woman” she told me, as she rushed to the local supermarket to stock up on sanitary pads and celebratory chocolate.
We then spent the next few hours snacking on chocolate as she gave me the down low on things like how to wear a pad, how to deal with leakage, and how to handle the cramps. While it’s a pretty ideal scenario for most girls – to have a supportive figure around to help them navigate their first period – it is unfortunately very uncommon.
In many cultures, menstruation is not talked about. It can be seen as dirty or impure and the silence around it can lead to a lack of knowledge, which can generate damaging misconceptions.
In a recent study involving nearly 100,000 girls in India, almost half of them did not know about menstruation until the first time they got their period. Many girls think that they are dying or have a horrible disease the first time they menstruate, as the pain and blood causes confusion and worry.
But menstruation is a healthy and normal part of most women’s lives. On average, we spend 3,000 days in our lifetime menstruating. Roughly half the female population (that’s around 26% of the total population) are of a reproductive age and the majority spend between 2 – 7 days menstruating each month.
Menstrual hygiene matters – not just to the women and girls who are menstruating, but to the whole of society. Here’s how:
- Menstruation matters to education: When schools have the right facilities and education materials – they can help girls manage their menstruation with pride and dignity, and contribute to better education, gender equality and health outcomes.
- MENstruation matters to boys and men too: Taboos are created by the whole of society – in order to break the silence around menstrual hygiene, we need boys and men to also start speaking about periods. When my colleague Emily was in Sierra Leone doing menstrual hygiene research, she noticed a lot of the girls were worried about going to school when they had their period was because boys would tease them or think they were dirty. We need to put the MEN back into menstruation – great pun aside, we seriously need to get boys and men involved in breaking the silence on periods.
- Menstruation matters to health: many girls and women can’t afford sanitary napkins or cloths and often rely on unsafe materials, like newspaper, that can cause infection. In some cases, the cloth might be adequate but there are no facilities to keep the cloth clean enough to reuse it.
- Menstruation matters for progress: improving menstrual hygiene can have a profound effect on girls and women, as it can help unlock progress related to health, education and gender equality.
- YOU matter to menstruation: yes – that’s right, you. Whether you get your period or not, you can play an important role in breaking the silence around menstruation. Strike up a conversation, share a story, ask a question or simply just put it out there – Menstruation Matters!
On World Menstrual Hygiene Day, I encourage you to share why Menstruation Matters to you with the whole world. Use the hashtag #MenstruationMatters and see what others have to say. You can also share your story in the comments below.
Philippa Lysaght is a WASH Communications Specialist in Public Advocacy, Division of Communication, UNICEF.