The roots of period shaming
Many ancient cultures and texts considered menstruation unclean. These beliefs date back thousands of years and have shaped generations of cultural stigmas.
For example, in regards to menstruation, the Quran states that it is “a harmful thing for a husband to have sexual intercourse with his wife while she is having her menses; you shall avoid sexual intercourse with the women during menstruation; do not approach them until they are rid of it.”
The Bible details a story of one woman who had a flow of blood for 12 years. Whether her illness was related to a menstrual cycle or not, she was regarded in Jewish law as a niddah, a word that means menstruating woman. She was considered unclean and excluded from the social and religious aspects of society.
Many scholars consider these writings to be motivated by hygiene, but there is still controversy about their influence in ancient and modern patriarchal societies. Some believe that menstrual taboos and period shaming predate culture and even language.
What is the menstruation taboo?
The menstruation taboo extends to many parts of a woman’s physiology and sexuality, but it primarily involves the stigma around discussing and caring for menstrual needs. This taboo often leads to the exclusion of women from social, domestic, and educational activities. The taboo also makes people feel like the topic of periods is uncomfortable, embarrassing, and even dangerous to discuss in some societies. This often leads women to use code words or slang to refer to periods.
In the last two centuries, scholars, authors, and psychologists have attempted to specify what exactly has contributed to taboos around periods. Sigmund Freud thought that the fear of blood was one reason behind the taboos, another being that it was associated with a woman’s fear of losing her virginity. Twentieth-century author Allan Coult said that primitive man had an unconscious desire to avoid the adverse effects menstruation had on “organic materials.” According to Coult, taboos developed as a way to cope with periods. Whatever the reason behind these stigmas, menstruation taboos have real and serious effects on the health, education, safety, and happiness of people who get periods.
Nepalese women face one of the greatest struggles when they begin getting their period. The topic of menstruation has long been considered taboo because of cultural and religious beliefs. Nepal’s primary religion is Hinduism, which teaches that menstruating women are impure and polluted. This religious doctrine has led to the practice of chhaupadi for a large portion of western Nepal.
Chhaupadi is an Achham word that refers to a custom that requires women to be confined to a menstruation hut during their period and for up to two weeks after giving birth. Chhaupadi poses a sanitary and safety problem. Women have died in menstruation huts from smoke inhalation during fires, attacks from wild animals, and serious illnesses like dehydration. Women who observe this practice often spend their period in a cow shed that doubles as a menstruation hut, which some consider humiliating.
Besides religious practices, there are other prejudices against women related to their periods. Women are not allowed to have physical contact with their spouse or male relatives, can’t enter their kitchens, in addition to being prohibited from going to temple during their periods. Since chhaupadi and discriminatory practices are ingrained in Hinduism and Nepalese culture, it’s difficult to fight against this stigma.
Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu has multiple nonprofits that are working to provide sanitary services for women. For example, MITRA Samaj is an organization that provides sanitary napkins and proper waste management to businesses, companies, restaurants, schools, and other public places.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has a program called Water Sanitation and Hygiene that aims to provide far-western areas with proper hygiene services, including water. Since water is considered sacred in Hinduism, women having access to this vital resource during their monthly cycle is doubly important.
Likewise, menstruation in India is largely considered dirty and impure. Religion is a large part of Indian culture, and many people practice Hinduism. Thus, many of the stigmas that are prevalent in Nepal are mirrored in India.
A lack of period products makes periods more of a burden in India. In fact, 88 percent of women in India still rely on cloths, rags, hay, ash, and even leaves to manage their periods. When their menstruation begins for the first time, over 23 percent of girls in India drop out of school. Those who remain miss an average of five days of school per month because of their periods. Women’s education can have a major impact on economic growth, which means menstruation taboo can affect the prosperity of a country.
88 percent of women in India still rely on cloths, rags, hay, ash, and even leaves to manage their periods.
Flo Health’s initiative in India aims to improve the lives of women and girls who may not otherwise receive the resources they need to manage their periods. Our project involves three main steps. The first step is to generate awareness about the serious hygiene and emotional hurdles faced by women in India. Second, we raise funds to help provide the necessary resources via donations to Dharma Life, an Indian economic growth initiative. Finally, feminine hygiene companies donate products to Dharma Life, which uses the funds and products to educate girls in rural India.
UNICEF’s statistics show that 10 percent of African girls skip school during their periods. In Ghana and Garissa, Kenya, this statistic is astronomically higher, at 95 percent and 86 percent respectively. Other African countries have similar statistics. Many girls experience fear, shame, and embarrassment. They’re teased by fellow children, experience period shaming, and have difficulty managing their periods.
Many girls use bunched up cloth from other pieces of clothing to absorb the bleeding. This is not only unsanitary, but uncomfortable. Because they didn’t have access to them when they were young, some mothers deny their children access to period products even when they’re available. In addition, many school facilities don’t support feminine hygiene or have an adequate water supply. Poverty can also be an obstacle in obtaining period products.
In Indonesia, the taboos are similar to those in India and Nepal. Some workplaces provide time off for people during their periods. But in remote provinces, women are not so fortunate.
Women are still viewed as unclean in remote Indonesian areas, such as the rural parts of Bali. Intercourse is forbidden during this time, and men and women alike view menstruation as embarrassing. One UNICEF report stated that a quarter of girls had not discussed their period with anybody before their first cycle. Tampons are not regularly available because of the belief that tampons take a girl’s virginity.
UNICEF is trying to educate people about menstruation with comics and educational films. The hope is that education will help children of all genders accept the menstrual cycle as a natural process.
Girls and women in low-income countries face greater struggles than those in Western countries. Cultural and religious myths about menstruation hinder progress in many places. Fortunately, initiatives like Flo Health’s charity campaign are working to end stigmas and taboos. Ending discriminatory practices and educating people will provide women with improvements in menstrual hygiene and advance human rights in many countries around the world.