Shame, Stigma, and Period Poverty

Periods are a natural part of a woman's life - but they remain a taboo topic. Meg looks at how the stigma around periods has changed, and how stigma and lack of access to support around menstruation impacts on women & girls worldwide.

I remember when I started my periods.

I remember a mixture of elation and panic. I felt so grown-up and couldn’t wait to tell my friends. But I was staying at my dad’s house and I was far too embarrassed to tell him. I had to ring my mum and she heroically came round armed with tampons, pads, and paracetamol.

credit: Artifact Magazine

credit: Artifact Magazine

I’ve come a long way since then. I don’t cringe when I’m buying sanitary products at Boots, I happily rant about tampons being taxed as ‘luxury items’, and whine to my friends about PMS.

Yet I find myself still using relying upon a secret language when asking a friend for a spare pad in public, and withhold the truth when a stranger enquires why I look faint when my cramps are painful. I was even apprehensive about writing a blog like this.

We still have a period taboo. We acknowledge that they happen but it’s vulgar to talk about them in public. A natural process that affects most women monthly and we can barely talk about it.

It is getting a lot better. Gone are the days when 14-year-old girls killed themselves because they didn’t understand why they were bleeding, schools are required to explain what periods are, and just this year we had the first sanitary product advert that showed actual blood rather than some strange blue liquid. But girls and women are still suffering both across the UK and the world. Homeless women or those living in poverty often cannot afford sanitary products – and shelters aren’t given funding for them, unlike condoms. The alternative is to use pieces of newspaper or cloths that often leading to infection. Despite this being a vast issue, we are only beginning to discuss and tackle ‘period poverty’, such as the female protagonist in ‘I, Daniel Blake’ shoplifting tampons  and calls for sanitary product donations.

This is a problem found around the world. With no real access to adequate sanitary products, either they are not available or simply not prioritised. Without proper sanitary products, girls around the world are forced to miss school every month. This is a huge hit to girls’ education, which is closely linked to breaking the cycle of poverty.

In some places like Nepal, the period taboo is so deeply rooted, that girls and women are forced to sleep outside the house when menstruated. Despite this practice being banned, it is still carried out rurally, putting females at risk of sexual assault and even death.

But we cannot tackle the issues associated with periods if we cannot talk about them. We need to deconstruct the taboo, particularly by including boys and men in the conversation. Girls and women both in the UK and around the world should not feel fear or shame around their bodies. More so, we need to acknowledge that this prevalent problem has dire consequences for females and society. So let’s start the conversation and break the silence around periods.