Last Thursday was Menstrual Hygiene Day, a day dedicated to both teaching good hygiene practices and to addressing the stigmatization of menstruation that persists in many societies around the world. I love this. I love it so much. Because periods are not gross, dirty or evil. And the sooner men and women learn that, the better off we’ll all be.
I should probably mention here that I recently read Toni Weschler’s Taking Charge of Your Fertility, and like almost every woman who’s read it (at least I’m pretty sure this is true), I’m now obsessed with internalizing and disseminating all my new knowledge about the female reproductive system. I mean, five months ago, I don’t think I had even heard the term “cervical mucus,” and now I can’t even count how many conversations I’ve had specifically about cervical mucus – CM in fertility blogspeak – in the last week. Like I said, obsessed. (Married Catholics probably are more familiar with it through study of natural family planning.)
On GSR we talk a lot about female genital mutilation and how the ignorance about or – in many cases – the active suppression of women’s sexuality is harmful. What I think can sometimes be missing from that conversation is how detrimental it is to women and girls when they’re ostracized for something as natural as their periods.
According to a UNICEF report, in Sierra Leone, school girls who are normally active participants in the classroom will sit in the back of the room when they’re on their periods because they are afraid someone will smell it or that they will leak through their clothes. UNESCO estimates that 1 in 10 girls in Africa don’t go to school at all during their period. And it wasn’t until 2003 that Nepal made it illegal to force menstruating women to sleep in separate huts or sheds.
But before any of us in the West start thinking this is just an issue in the developing world, keep in mind that just three months ago, the California-based social media behemoth Instagram repeatedly removed an image that artist and poet Rupi Kaur posted of herself, fully clothed but leaking some blood through her sweatpants.
The photo, Instagram said, violated their community guidelines. After the image was removed twice, Kaur reposted it, saying in the caption:
thank you Instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique. you deleted my photo twice stating that it goes against community guidelines. i will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in underwear but not be okay with a small leak. when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified, pornified, and treated less than human. thank you.
Instagram later said Kaur’s photo had been deleted by mistake, but few people were buying that. The fact of the matter is, women and girls around the world are taught that their period should be their own dirty little secret – and that’s if they’re taught anything about it all. And so we come up with euphemisms, we hide our pads, tampons and menstrual cups, and we downplay the very real PMS symptoms that affect us physically and emotionally. We put up with schools that don’t have bathrooms or functioning toilets, and when we aren’t given access to anything else, we settle for makeshift pads created out of unsanitary materials that are damaging to our health.
I think the point of Menstrual Hygiene Day is to answer that and to fix it. If you missed it this year, I encourage you to visit the website and find out how you can get involved next year. Or any day, really, because it’s that important. This is about health and education, yes, but it’s also about dignity. And we owe that to our sisters.
[Dawn Cherie Araujo is staff reporter for Global Sisters Report based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @Dawn_Cherie.]