Period blood is seen in many cultures as being “impure” — but it’s time that perception changed. (Illustration: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)
For many women in the U.S., a monthly period means little more than reaching into the bathroom cabinet for a pad or a tampon and popping a pill to ease cramps. But in other parts of the world, menstruation can pose a tremendous challenge — one that’s marked by inadequate access to proper sanitary materials and limited access (if any at all) to toilets and water.
In some countries, girls miss school and women stop going to work because they don’t have the proper supplies to manage their menstruation. In rural India, for instance, many women and girls have little choice but to use materials like husks, dried leaves, grass, ash, and even newspapers because they don’t have access to affordable hygienic products. Women using rags are often far from water sources and they may not have soap to wash the rags properly.
The United Nations considers water and sanitation to be basic human rights, and “when women don’t have access to water to be able to clean their bodies regularly or to clean whatever they are using for menstrual management in the right way, when they’re not able to dry the rags out in the sun because they’re supposed to hide them from men, there’s a risk of infection,” says Danielle Keiser, a spokesperson for WASH United, a Berlin-based non-governmental organization dedicated to water, hygiene, and sanitation.
“If women don’t have access to a toilet, or there isn’t a lock on a toilet and someone catches them managing their menstruation, that shame cannot be shed easily,” Keiser tells Yahoo Health.
And even though access to sanitary products is easier in America, there are still some for whom a pack of pads is a huge expense, says Cece Jones-Davis, founder of the menstrual hygiene advocacy organization Women & Girls Working Group. Not having the right equipment and being forced to use poor substitutes (Jones-Davis has met young, inner-city women who use toilet paper instead of pads or tampons) is not only unsanitary, but can result in the same kind of shaming that women and young girls in developing countries face.
What Is Menstrual Blood?
In parts of Nepal, menstruating women must wait out their cycle in a cowshed. Many Indian women are not allowed into the kitchen when they have their period, and in traditional Chinese culture, women are not allowed to sit on a chair that their husband could sit on.
These and other menstrual taboos have been present in our societies since time immemorial. They are rooted in the belief that menstrual blood is dirty, impure, and polluting.
In reality, menstrual blood is no different from any other kind of blood, says Jen Fahey, CNN, MSN, MPH, an assistant professor in the division of general obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Every month, a woman’s body sheds the lining that had formed around the uterus, and this contains red blood cells. “Menstrual blood is not impure — this idea has probably come about because it is excreted vaginally,” she tells Yahoo Health.
Menstrual flow does alter the vagina’s pH, and this can increase risk of infection in some women. However, improper hygiene is more likely to cause odors and infections than a period itself, Fahey says, as can the tendency to over-clean. This is extremely common in the U.S. and removes the vagina’s natural flora, thereby allowing bacteria to flourish.
“Proper menstrual hygiene is a part of what we call general vaginal hygiene and it needs to be balanced between under-cleansing and over-cleansing,” she says. “If little girls are taught to believe that their menses are dirty and unclean, that their period blood is impure, there is no way to have a conversation about what is actually normal.”
How Do You Change Perception of Menstruation?
Improving access to sanitary products — and, in developing economies, ensuring that there’s the proper sanitation infrastructure to enable better menstrual hygiene — will go a long way toward improving women’s health and ensuring their greater participation in society. But for menstrual advocates like Chris Bobel, increasing the availability of pads and tampons is but a cosmetic solution to a much deeper problem — one that has to do with society’s mindset vis-à-vis menstruation.
“When you upgrade menstrual care, you treat the symptoms but not the disease,” says Bobel, an associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and president-elect of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research. “That’s why having the right kinds of products is not a solution. It simply perpetuates the problems of menstrual stigma by covering them up.”
To truly liberate women, “we need to stop body shaming and stop viewing menstruation as something shameful,” Bobel adds.
A greater availability of more effective menstrual hygiene products means that more women can get on with their lives and “pass as though they are not bleeding,” says Sharra Vostral, associate professor of history at Purdue University and author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology.
However, the understanding that a period is “the body doing what it needs to be doing” is something that societies all over the world still shy away from. So until that conversation happens in a frank and open way, the stigma associated with menstruation will remain widespread, she says.
That’s the purpose behind Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28): to help break the silence around menstruation and menstrual hygiene management.
“We want to unify everyone and speak in one voice to say that ‘menstruation matters,’” says Keiser of WASH United, which spearheads Menstrual Hygiene Day.
The goal is to combat the shame “ingrained in all of us, the shame that comes if your menstrual blood shows,” adds Jones-Davis of Women & Girls Working Group, a partner of Menstrual Hygiene Day.
“As advocates for menstrual hygiene, we want to be able to overcome that,” Jones-Davis says. It’s important “to raise awareness not only in women, but start a conversation that includes men and boys and make them understand that if it weren’t for menstruation, they wouldn’t be here.”
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