We must attack shame and secrecy around menstruation, say health activists

We must attack shame and secrecy around menstruation, say health activists

Though different in their approach, women worldwide are speaking up about their periods in a wave of menstrual activism
Updated 30 Nov, 2017

The time for being coy about the time of the month may be over.

Women are starting to speak up about their periods in a wave of "menstrual activism" which is being compared to the "women's liberation" movement of the 1960s.

From emojis to show they are menstruating to sharing pictures of blood-stained sheets and pants on social media, a taboo that still blights the lives of millions in the developing world is being challenged as never before.

With smartphone period tracker apps booming to help women recognise the various stages of their cycle, activists say they want to lift the embarrassment from “a subject that should not be hidden”.

"We need to talk about this. We want to open a debate" about what is a normal bodily function, said Yvan Savy, of Plan International, which launched a competition earlier this year to find an emoji for a period.

A pair of knickers with two drops of blood won the contest ─ while the British sanitary product maker Bodyform has also submitted six more "femojis" that deal with menstruation to Unicode, the California body which decides new pictograms.

The rise of menstrual consciousness has also caught social media platforms flatfooted. Instagram faced a furious revolt when it removed two pictures posted by cult Canadian poet Rupi Kaur showing small patches of menstrual blood on her pants and sheets two years ago.

Her 1.8 million followers applauded as Kaur railed at the hypocrisy of "a misogynist society" that sexualised women and would "have my body in underwear but (was) not OK with a small leak."

A counter to shaming

Images of the American musician Kiran Gandhi bleeding as she crossed the finishing line after she ran the London marathon without a tampon also went viral, with many hailing her decision a radical act to counter the "shaming".

Read more: Dear Pakistani men, here's how you talk about periods

While surveys show many women in the West are still uncomfortable discussing the subject, in India and large swathes of Africa prejudice and myths around menstruation, as well as a lack of girl-friendly toilet facilities keeps millions "away from school when they are having their periods", Savy said.

In Ethiopia, half of girls are forced to stay at home up to four days a month, while in Uganda girls lose a fifth of their schooling, according to Plan International.

In Bangladesh, the group said girls faced "widespread shame, silence and physical restrictions during menstruation." Neighbouring Nepal banned an ancient Hindu practice called chhaupadi in August that banishes women from the home during menstruation.

Many communities there view menstruating women as impure and in some remote areas they are forced to sleep in a hut away from home during their periods.

While Plan International believes education and better access to washing facilities and sanitary products in poorer countries can help hugely, others insist that prejudices have to be tackled head-on.

Professor Christina Bobel, of University of Massachusetts and president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, told AFP that "until we dispel the myths associated with menstruation and bring much needed visibility to this biological process, its social meanings as dirty, embarrassing problem to be solved, will persist."

"We have to attack the shame and secrecy, we have to make menstruation visible. Until we do, products ─ no matter how hi-tech or widely available ─ will not change the way to encounter our bodies as the rich and wonderful resources they are,” she added.

'I'm only bleeding'

Even in the most supposedly feminist of societies, the subject can still be divisive. Images of menstruating ice skaters on the Stockholm metro ─ "It's Alright (I'm Only Bleeding)" ─ by Swedish artist Liv Stromquist were defaced this month after they were denounced on social media as "disgusting".

"It is so shocking for us as a society to see menstrual blood. It's polarising," said Gandhi after her tampon-less marathon run.

Yet Bodyform was almost universally praised for breaking with tradition in its adverts by using blood-red fluid instead of the traditional blue liquid to show how absorbent its sanitary towels were.

Also read: This super-fun mobile game is making it easier to talk about periods

Manufacturers, however, are also being called to account over the prices of their products as well as to reveal what chemicals are used in their manufacture, and the environmental cost of disposing of them.

"Period poverty" has become a hot political issue, with Britain's opposition Labour party promising to provide free sanitary towels to schools, homeless shelters and food banks if it comes to power.

But it is in the developing world that the biggest steps need to be taken, said Plan International, pointing to KmerPad, a Cameroon-based company, which makes low-cost washable organic protection for the local market.

The push comes as younger women in the West have become more suspicious of attempts to control "women's reproduction by chemical methods such as the (contraceptive) pill," according to Alana Harris, a historian of sex and religion at King's College, London.

Her show "Period Piece: Telling Menstrual Tales", now at the Science Gallery in the British capital, explores "this fraught and freighted emotional landscape".

"It seems to me that the ubiquitous nature of these apps is facilitating more frank and better-informed conversations amongst women and men about our bodies and blood," she said.


1000 Characters
Amiya Deka Nov 30, 2017 06:50pm
This was long overdue
Lynda Howard Nov 30, 2017 06:50pm
Educate the masses about human reproduction. Ignorance is the basic problem.
iqbal bhai Nov 30, 2017 06:51pm
I am a male. I think menstruation is more a matter of personal hygiene. If a woman wants to talk about her personal hygiene, fine. But liberation and freedom is carrying it too far. There was a movement in New York to go top-less and it was considered freedom and liberation. So if a woman feels liberated merely by talking about her periods, I would be a good listener and would support her.
SadFaces Nov 30, 2017 06:57pm
Doesn't periods bring painful cramps which otherwise forces schoolgirls to take time off. Also, are these people fine with people who don't wear sanitary pads or newly wedded men who haven't taken bath in the morning sit on their furniture.
z Nov 30, 2017 07:40pm
Rehana Agha Nov 30, 2017 09:18pm
It should have been done hundreds of years ago. It is very late, but not too late.
S.A.Khan Nov 30, 2017 10:29pm
There is no shame about it. It is a natural life cycle and should be explained in Hygiene teaching in schools. Greeks mythology mentions it as cry of wombs to have babies.
sADIA zafar Nov 30, 2017 10:52pm
While it is important to have a scientific understanding of menstruation to minus the shame and stigma associated with it , I do not see any reason for publicly sharing pictures or sharing the experiences. It is a bodily function like any other and I have never read about any activism about making your defecation and urinary experiences and habits part of dinner conversation
Jared lee Dec 01, 2017 12:44am
Each culture should address gender related matters within its own cultural context. Personally, be issues related to men or women, both genders' privacy should be fully respected. This is not an issue of being a liberal or a conservative, it is about addressing issues in an educated and respectful manner.
jo Dec 01, 2017 08:11am
Defecation is a natural process. We still go in a secluded place (generally a toilet) to relieve it. I will not let it happen while I am running a marathon.
Ahmed Dec 01, 2017 11:17am
There is no shame in mentruation - nor is there in going to the bathroom for any other reason. But does that mean we have to put an advertisement on everything in life and post everything on social media now? We need to act mature and confident not just copy everything in the West
Trump Et Dec 01, 2017 12:38pm
Tell me ONE way in which this is going to help an average middle class woman. Our mothers, sisters have been doing fine keeping their modesty yet facing no problem. Please be mature enough to understand they did it as a matter of choice. Anyone feels talking about it is related to freedom is deluded.
kerala Dec 01, 2017 02:23pm
@sADIA zafar Because micturition and defecation are applicable for all humans whereas menstruation affects only women of particular age group.So whatever things men don't understand like menstruation, childbirth, interval between two pregnancies, Requirement of 6 month exclusive breastfeeding,marital rape etc in this misogynistic world need to be talked on dinner table.
temur Dec 01, 2017 08:04pm
Girls from educated are bit bold enough to talk about this otherwise many are reluctant to say anything or just head nodding about it .
Steve lomas Dec 01, 2017 08:54pm
Men, do understand that it's in no way any your business to tell women how, when and where they talk about this issue. Learn to shut up sometimes, it's that simple.
syedchaudhrygangadinkhan Dec 03, 2017 01:31pm
Why is there shame about menstruation? Its a normal physiological function of the female body.
putho madre Dec 03, 2017 06:29pm
At least half of the world population know about it, but there are so many other physiological things most people are ignorant about and fall victim to it or taken advantage by others.