< Back to All Articles

“The Shame of Menstruating” – Menstrual Hygiene Day

~Today Is Menstrual Hygiene Day~
“The Shame of Menstruating”

I remember my first period. I was fourteen years old and it was just before Easter. I actually remember feeling excited. My grandmother sent me a tree of life necklace shortly thereafter – she sent one to each of us. She wanted us to remember that our periods were a symbol of the beautiful power of the female body. The tree symbolized the female power to create and sustain life. My mother told us that our periods were our “power time,” and encouraged us to see them as a gift rather than a burden.

Yet, I can say with confidence that my experience was pretty unique. Most girls around the world are not encouraged to talk publicaly about their period, much less celebrate it. And despite my mother and grandmother’s loving encouragement toward embracing my period as a source of power and beauty, society told me to hide it. To be ashamed of it – to avoid wearing white in case, God forbid it leaked, to plot a method to hide the pad before the walk of shame to the bathroom, and to avoid sex at all costs during those seven days.

Society told me, and girls around the world, to come up with euphemisms so that we could guarantee that the boys couldn’t understand what we were talking about. “Aunt Flow is visiting this week.” Society taught boys to blame any sign of emotion from us on “that time of the month,” and to shout “You must be on your period!” as if it was the most painful insult that a girl could hear.

Menstruation In India
And around the world, women are shamed into silence for having their periods, something that literally sustains and gives human life. We are made to feel embarrassed, disgusting, and ashamed that we bleed once a month. Around the world, this shame takes on different forms, different levels of extremity – yet regardless of where you are, it exists.

In rural India, I sat on a thin straw mat, the prickly grasses poking through and sticking my legs. My feet were tucked under the dirtied hems of my salwar kameez as I leaned forward and looked out at the scattered acacia trees, and occasional cow that would wander past us. Children played in the background, and Vanitha’s mother in law peered out from their one room concrete house, casting a skeptical eye over our interview.

“For the monthly theetu, we have to stay out of doors for five days. We should not wash utensils, light the lamp, should not light the stove. We should stay out for five days,” Vanitha explained to me.[1] In Tamil, “theetu” refers to a period of isolation, most commonly in junction with a woman’s period (though, there are other instances of theetu as well). And for the Irula Tribe, the monthly theetu means that women are not to enter the house, cook meals, wash dishes, go to the temple, or even hold their babies.

Vanitha’s mother in law chimes in. “In our caste, if the woman has bath and then cooks during the monthly periods, the whole village will blame her.”

These restrictions on women in India stem from the belief that women on their periods are contaminated, and that if they enter the house, or cook, or enter the temple, they will contaminate those around them, spreading the bad “juju” to other people. In fact, there are temples in India in which women who are of the menstrual age (anyone who has already had her first period until she enters menopause) are prohibited from entering. The temples are “too sacred” for a woman of menstrual age.

India is currently home to 25% of the world’s cases of cervical cancer, with 132,000 new cases diagnosed each year, according to PLAN India. The high rate of cervical cancer and other reproductive tract infections is due to poor menstrual hygiene. Throughout India, women living in poverty resort to using whatever they can find: soil, corn cobs, dirty rags, and other unsanitary items. In addition to the high price of menstrual hygiene products, women are driven to desperate measures to keep their periods a secret due to the shame brought upon them by others finding out. Girls drop out of school at exorbitantly high rates due to the lack of toilets and private facilities for them to care for menstrual needs. And this problem is not unique to India – in fact, menstruation coupled with lack of access to toilets at school is one of the leading causes that girls around the world drop out of school.

Menstruation In Ecuador
Almost two years later, I find myself sitting on a rickety wooden bench in a small community located in the Zamora Province of southern Ecuador. We had reached a lull in our village access campaign, and my coworker’s family friend, Abuelita María, had joined us.[1] We sat under the crumbling roof of the local municipal government building, looking out at the palm trees and bright flowers scattered throughout the central park.

Abuelita María smiled when I asked about menstruation. Small wrinkles gathered around her aging face, as she told me her story. “Of course, I remember my first one.”[2] She leaned back against the dusty turquoise wall, and her gaze shifted to a far off place. “I thought that I had dysentery. I went, crying to my mother, and that’s what I learned what it was. It was the sickness of the woman.”
Sickness of the woman. In communities throughout Ecuador, women refer to their periods as la enfermedad de la mujer (sickness of the woman), la regla (the rule), or la visita (the visit). They are literally told that their period is a sickness, one that only women experience.

Abuelita María’s mother taught her the restrictions that she’d have to follow during la regla. She, like many other Ecuadorian women around the country, was told that she’d have to avoid avocadoes, limes, sour foods, and pork. She was also instructed not to bathe for the duration of her period, since the blood from a women’s period is “dirty” and cannot be washed into the drain for fear of contamination.

My colleague and Abuelita María turned to me and asked if I was told the same things when I came of age. I shook my head no. Both women look surprised, and Abuelita María asked, “But nothing happened? Nothing bad happened when you ate an avocado?” Again, I shook my head no.
These experiences are not uncommon. Around the world, generations of girls and women are taught about menstrual taboos, limitations, and restrictions on their actions during “that time of the month.” In some cultures the taboos and stigmas are more intense and restrictive than in others, yet the message remains the same: women should be ashamed of their periods.

Menstruation Around The World
In schools all around the world, girls drop out of school when they reach menstrual age because schools do not have the infrastructure to help them deal with menstruation. They literally sacrifice their access to education because taboo and stigma tells them to avoid public signs of menstruation at all costs. And in a school without a toilet, that’s pretty impossible for a girl on her period.

Just weeks ago, Instagram deleted a photo posted by Instagram user Rupi Kaur. In her photo, a fully clothed woman is asleep on a bed, blood visible through her sweatpants and on the sheets of the bed. Instagram claimed that the photo violated the community standards. It didn’t.[1]

“We are not outraged by blood. We see blood all the time. Blood is pervasive in movies, television, and video games. Yet, we are outraged by the fact that one openly discusses bleeding from an area that we try to claim ownership over,” wrote Rupi Kaur in a piece published in Huffington Post a few weeks back. Kaur continues, “Highlighting the fact that the vagina is used for something other than sex is a direct attack on our idyllic conceptions of a manicured feminine identity.” And she’s right.

Humanity is not disgusted by blood. We are not upset at the discussion of it, or even the sight of it. Society is upset when women try to claim ownership over their own bodies and the natural cycles that they experience. Society is upset when women are empowered by their bodies, or when the masculine cannot exert control over the feminine.

It is time for the global community to stop failing us – to stop forcing us into feelings of shame. Menstruation sustains human life. It is time for us to empower women around the world, to focus on the importance and power that underlies menstruation, and to provide women with the necessary tools and knowledge to make decisions about their own bodies. And this process needs to be done carefully – with patience and appreciation for cultural difference and deeply-rooted traditional beliefs. And I am confident that it can be done. Menstruation need not be a burden or carry taboo: it can be powerful, positive, and beautiful.

***Photo credit to Sarah Webb. Formatting by Heather Goffrier.

[1] Vanitha’s name has been changed at her request to protect her identity. All translations & interpretations from Vanitha and her mother in law were done by Nandini Priyakumari, the principal of the school that I was working at in Tamil Nadu.
[2] Abuelita Mari’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
[3] The quotes from Abuelita María have been translated into English by the author.
[4] Instagram has since re-posted the photo along with a message to Kaur apologizing for the incident. You can find Rupi Kaur’s piece on the incident here: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/rupi-kaur/period-picture-instagram_b_6971228.html

Days for Girls
Days for Girls is an award-winning global NGO bringing menstrual health, dignity and opportunity to 3+ million girls (and counting!) worldwide.