Fatima is a member of Plan International USA’s Youth Advisory Board.
Imagine this. You’re a 13-year-old girl from Nepal, and you just got your period. Not only are you forced to skip school today, but you’re also sent to a “menstrual hut” because you’re believed to be impure. You find yourself all alone in the forest, completely exposed to mosquitoes, animals, insects and men. It’s an unsanitary place where the day’s humidity consumes you, and the night’s rain makes you shiver. No bathroom. No shelter. No safety. The number of diseases and infections that you could acquire are endless, and your mental health is being tested more and more as each day passes.
This is a reality that many girls in Nepal have to endure every month. This “tradition” was made illegal in 2017, yet it is continually practiced due to the culture of taboo surrounding menstruation. Not just in Nepal, but around the world, girls and women are treated with shame when they menstruate. But the stigma needs to end.
Stigma around menstruation affects all aspects of a girl’s life: health, education, work and dignity.
In low-income countries and communities, girls and women don’t have access to feminine products, toilets, bathrooms, clean water or even private spaces to take care of their hygiene. Mental health is also a huge concern because of the shame that girls endure from their families, friends, teachers and community leaders. And that shame stems from the stigma around menstruation that is embedded in their cultures.
Girls often have to stay home from school because they don’t have the resources to safely manage their periods and feel comfortable going to class. This directly affects girls’ academic development. Not only does skipping school make a girl fall behind in her education, but also creates high stress and anxiety.
Similar to girls missing school, young women often can’t to go to work while menstruating if they don’t have menstrual products or are forced to isolate. This creates an even greater barrier preventing women from succeeding in their careers. And looking at the bigger picture, this impedes women from achieving high leadership positions, and therefore, having the authority in society to make positive changes surrounding gender equality.
If girls don’t have the resources and support needed when they get their periods, they can’t live with dignity. The lack of sanitation, the shame, the seclusion and the stigma that girls have to experience during menstruation robs them of their livelihoods. And if girls can’t live equally, they can’t take full advantage of their potential.
In the past decade, we’ve seen issues around period poverty emerge more and more in conversation. And as the media amplifies that awareness, the need for accessible menstrual health management is becoming harder to ignore. Popularly advertised among period product companies has been the “buy one, give one” business model — Lunapads started a One4Her campaign, donating pads to low-income communities, and Conscious Period, an organic brand, also follows the same model.
Giving away free menstrual supplies helps, but it is not a sustainable solution for girls. It is simply not enough to create lasting change.
So what can be done?
Schools, health facilities, governments and media channels that influence cultural norms need to work to permanently end period stigma.
Schools and health facilities: Schools around the world should implement a universal health curriculum that includes menstrual and reproductive health, teaching young people of all genders how bodies function and what is needed to manage menstruation. Health facilities everywhere must also be transparent with girls and young women about their health, letting them know that they don’t need to be ashamed of what’s normal.
After-school activities and government: After-school clubs also play a big role in allowing young girls to feel empowered to lead their classmates in discussions and activities. Creating safe spaces for girls and young women to express their concerns, experiences and questions should be prioritized by governments. This will normalize the period conversation, while slowly chipping away at the stigma.
Media: Gen Z and Millennials around the world are the main consumers of media. So, it’s important to take full advantage of radio, television, magazines and newspapers so that young people can have the knowledge to create change for the future. This could include creating a radio talk show where women and girls can have “unplugged conversations” about menstruation and health.
But there’s a catch here. People in power tend to impose their ways, without considering cultures outside of their own. This is why it’s crucial to work with the young women and girls and have them be the leaders of change. We women and girls must be the driving force of this movement to normalize menstruation, and our personal experiences and perspectives should be at the center of all solutions.