I vividly remember the first time I was taught about menstruation at school. Girls and boys were separated. We girls learned about menstrual health and hygiene with female teachers, while male teachers taught boys about topics that were never revealed to us.
By learning about the human body and menstruation in isolation, a barrier was established between boys and girls, conditioning all of us to believe that menstruation was not something we could talk about openly. This ordinary school day set the tone for a lifetime of stigma, cultural taboos and misinformation about menstruation.
Because so many of us learn these taboos at such a young age, the fact that we don't talk openly about periods starts to seem normal.
But it isn't.
Periods are a fact of life, and the code of silence that surrounds them carries a heavier toll than you might expect. It can cause emotional anxiety and social isolation that can affect women and girls' physical, emotional and mental health, and their participation in society.
Growing up, my male peers often failed to understand the impact when they made comments like "she's just PMSing" or removed themselves from conversations that referenced "periods." I began menstruating at an early age, before it was addressed in school. I remember not having a place to dispose of feminine hygiene products in my school's bathrooms. Barriers like these reinforce harmful gender stereotypes, and prevent women and girls from practicing menstrual hygiene safely.
A recent survey conducted by Plan International Canada suggests that I'm far from alone in these experiences: 74 per cent of women under 25 reported having had other people accuse them of PMS. A shocking 83 per cent of women under 25 reported feeling that their period prevents them from full participation in an activity.
Above and beyond the social effects of period stigma, periods can also pose serious economic challenges for girls and women. According to the same survey, one third of women under 25 in Canada have struggled to afford menstrual products for themselves or their dependents.
Period poverty — an inability to afford menstrual hygiene products or access appropriate facilities for menstrual hygiene management — is a real, often devastating, issue faced by women worldwide. UNICEF estimates that at least 500 million women and girls around the world lack the means to manage their monthly periods. Without access to appropriate supplies and facilities, girls are often unable to attend school while they have their periods, and women struggle to participate in their daily activities.
Governments, institutions and communities must recognize their roles in prioritizing menstrual hygiene
We're seeing strides in the right direction here in Canada and around the world, with initiatives like Centennial College's recent "Free the Tampon" project,which makes pads and tampons freely available.
In Uganda, Plan International is driving an innovative program through which girls and boys make reusable cloth sanitary napkins at school. This provides an entry point for menstruation education and creates a source of free hygiene products so girls can continue to attend school.
Globally, we need better leadership on this issue. If those in power are not people who menstruate, and shame or taboos keep us from talking about periods openly, how will we ever prioritize women's health issues? Governments, institutions and communities must recognize their roles in prioritizing menstrual hygiene to begin these critical conversations and destigmatize periods.
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This Menstrual Hygiene Day, let's bring periods to the start of the conversation. Let's challenge everyone — boys, girls, men, women, communities, institutions, corporations and governments — to start talking about periods, innovating on women's health issues and consulting women and girls on how to break down harmful barriers when it comes to menstrual health. Only when we work together will we be able to find true solutions, and take steps to eliminate inequality.
Amy Bing is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto studying International Relations and Political Science. She is a Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health Mentor and Advocate as well as a Speakers Bureau member with Plan International Canada
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