Since the dawn of time, women have been having periods and today, like every other day, 800 million women will be experiencing this very natural process - yet the subject is still shrouded in stigma and taboo. This has a detrimental impact on the health, wellbeing and prospects of women and girls across the world. It’s time to for this to change.
Here in the UK, we are having our own debate around periods. Recently, supermarkets announced that they would pass the widely debated ‘tampon tax’ cut in full to female shoppers. There is consensus, as if it was needed, that periods are not a luxury. However, in the UK, generally having periods does not significantly hinder our life chances or health. Sadly, the same cannot be said for more than 1 billion women and girls around the world today who have to manage their periods without access to proper sanitation.
In the UK, women and girls are all too aware of the challenges and sometimes awkward dramas that periods can cause. Now, imagine these same issues without having access to a toilet. This is the reality for one in three women who do not have access to a toilet.
Having to find a quiet place to go to the toilet outside not only impinges on women’s dignity, but it also puts them at risk of prying eyes and even attack.
With no access to sanitary products or clean and private toilets at schools, girls often skip classes during their period due to having no sanitary protection, pain or embarrassment leaving them behind their male counterparts. Many girls drop out of school altogether. A WaterAid study in Nepal found that half of girls have missed school during their periods, and in India, a lack of toilets and other infrastructure is considered one of the top reasons for girls dropping out of education. In Uganda, I provided re-usable sanitary towels for girls and then their mothers also wanted them, so a friend who was a local MP helped to provide training for women in each parish to make them with a special pack using old fashioned hand Singer sewing machines I had taken out. This liberated so many girls and their mothers. All these girls deserve better.
Furthermore, in many countries, periods are shrouded in silence and stigma, and have many negative cultural beliefs associated with them, such as seeing menstruating women and girls as ‘dirty’ and ‘impure’. As a result, they are often forced into seclusion and have various restrictions imposed on them, as highlighted through a touching collection of photos taken by girls in Nepal.
Challenging the myths and taboos surrounding periods is vital to ensure that periods no longer hamper the life prospects and ambitions of women and girls around the globe.
Being able to deal with periods in a hygienic and dignified way is crucial to women’s wellbeing. Something as simple as private, safe toilets can make a huge difference not only to the everyday lives of women and girls but also the capacity to help transform entire communities.
Education about menstruation and simple hygiene facilities to manage menstruation can also make a huge difference, helping young girls stay in school and help change the futures of them and their families. Through working in schools and communities to improve girls’ ability to manage their periods through better access to water, toilets and sanitary supplies as well as dispelling the myths that shroud periods, women can advance in society, improve their health and girls kept in school.
If progress is to last, sustained political will is needed. Governments everywhere, including in developing countries must lead on enabling access to safe, private toilets.
Here in the UK, our own Government should continue to use its global influence to champion the rights of women and girls throughout the world to ensure they are at the heart of international development policies.
Women and girls deserve better. This Saturday (28th May) it is the UN’s Menstrual Hygiene Day. Together we can work to break the silence on periods and help ensure that women and girls everywhere can reach their full potential.