Shame surrounding natural bodily functions
At any given moment, 800 million women and girls around the world are menstruating. The menstrual cycle is a sign of female health and vitality yet rather than celebrated it is often shrouded in shame, embarrassment and even fear. The freedom to manage one’s menstrual hygiene adequately and with dignity is a central facet of women’s and girls’ human rights and gender equality. Yet the biological fact itself and the necessity of managing menstruation are often overshadowed by society’s response to them.
More than half of the female population in the majority of the countries covered in the Hygiene Matters Survey said they feel uncomfortable in social situations when they have their period. This discomfort is strongly connected to norms and social stigmas. Among the countries we surveyed, Mexico and China are where the menstrual stigma is most pronounced. More than seven in ten women in these countries say they feel uncomfortable in social situations when they have their period. The shame and stigma is manifested by the fact that many people prefer to use other words when speaking about menstruation (see chapter Managing menstruation in West and Central Africa).
Changing perceptions of menstruation, and breaking the silence around it, is essential for women and girls to reach their full potential. In 2014, Jyoti Sanghera from the UN Human Rights Office, described the stigma around menstrual hygiene as “a violation of several human rights, most importantly the right to human dignity.”
There are more extreme cases, such as in India, where menstruating women are forbidden from taking baths, touching sour foods such as pickles, cooking or even entering the kitchen. Some Muslim women are not allowed to offer prayers during their periods, nor touch the Holy Quran, visit religious shrines or fast during Ramadan. In rural Nepal, superstition leads to girls being separated from their families for up to six to ten days during menstruation and forbidden from, for example, looking at the sun, or touching fruit and flowers.
More than half of women feel uncomfortable in social situations when they have their period.
Menstrual hygiene is not only an enabler for women and girls to participate fully in society but it is also an important entry point to raising broader issues around gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment. Wassalke Boukhari, Niger’s Minister of Water and Sanitation, said at the Fourth AfricaSan conference in Dakar, Senegal in 2015, that: “Taboos are accompanied by ignorance which results in high-risk practices endangering women and girls. We must raise awareness and conduct advocacy to break taboos and replace ignorance with information.”
In a 2016 WSSCC report from Kenya (First National Training of Trainers on Menstrual Hygiene Management - Kenya), participating County First Ladies stressed that the challenges related to menstrual hygiene management are interconnected: the affordability of material, the disposal of menstrual waste, the silence around menstruation and the need for education. Sanitary pads are important, but not sufficient by themselves. There is a need for accurate and non-judgmental information before menarche. Such information is not only for girls, but men and boys must also be involved.
One in four women in the countries surveyed said they feel uncomfortable buying necessary items such as sanitary pads. Men feel even more embarrassed, and in China and Russia, the percentage who said they feel uncomfortable buying such items rose to as high as 65% and 64%, respectively.
Hygiene Matters Survey 2016/17
Women and girls feeling uncomfortable in social situations when they are on their period:
People feeling discomfort buying menstrual hygiene (a lot or some):
Read more: Hygiene Matters Survey 2016/17.