Periods can be challenging, for some more than others. Despite the fact that menstruation is a near-universal female experience, many girls and women face harmful consequences. A recent online and Clue app-based survey of 90,000 women from 190 countries highlights prevalent attitudes, perceptions, and challenges. The survey—which IWHC collaborated on—revealed a whole host of commonly-used slang terms, such as “on the rag,” “red tide,” or “lady time.” More importantly, it illustrated how periods and misconceptions about periods affect women’s health and rights.
The survey revealed that there are global disparities when it comes to girls’ and women’s access to education and information about menstruation. The countries with the highest percentage of participants who felt they had received sufficient information about starting their period were Finland (94 percent), Denmark (93 percent), and Japan (92 percent). This is in stark contrast to countries where participants felt inadequately educated in this respect, such as India (61 percent), Ukraine (41percent), and Russia (25 percent). This underscores the need to expand education; young girls and boys no matter where they live must know about their bodies and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Menstruation continues to inhibit women’s participation in school, work, and social activities. Almost a quarter of women who took part in the survey also said that they had missed “school, work, or an event” because they were on their period. This is consistent with trends that highlight that menstruation is a significant barrier to girls’ education globally. UNESCO estimates that 1 in 10 African girls miss school during menses, which can lead to higher dropout rates. In India, 66 percent of girls-only schools do not have functioning toilets. A study in Ghana uncovered that girls miss up to 5 days of school a month due to inadequate sanitation facilities and the lack of sanitary products at school.
Calls for better access to feminine hygiene products are growing around the world—even in the United States. Recently, President Obama said that the so-called “tampon tax”—treating feminine hygiene products as luxury items and therefore taxing them—does not make sense. “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed,” he commented.
President Obama is right. These products should be provided for free or at low cost. No doubt, if women around the world had better access to them, they would be on a more level playing field with men and boys.
There are other interesting findings from the survey. On a personal level, who do women and girls turn to when they want to discuss their periods? The Clue survey aligns with other research indicating that girls and women are much more comfortable speaking with female relatives, friends, and co-workers than they are with their male counterparts. This is particularly true for countries like Saudi Arabia and Japan where only 12 percent and 13 percent of women, respectively, stated they were comfortable discussing their period or period-related matters with men. This is not surprising given what we know about social norms and gender inequality in these settings.
While some have made light of men’s ignorance on all things related to women’s periods, the implications are serious. Menstruation continues to be highly stigmatized in many parts of the world, with the media, religious leaders, and others perpetuating the message that it is shameful to be female. It’s no surprise that women and girls are embarrassed when it’s that time of the month.
But change is happening—where we invest in women and girls rights. In Ghana, a study found that girls’ attendance in school increased substantially after they learned about puberty and received free sanitary pads. Last year, a state government in India decided to distribute free sanitary napkins to all girls in state-run schools. This could be an exciting model for other states of India as well as other countries.
Many organizations are making enormous progress in delivering menstrual hygiene products and educating both boys and girls. In addition to teaching young people about their bodies, one of IWHC’s partners in Kenya, K-Met, makes reusable, washable pads. With access to hygiene products, girls regain some control and can make choices about their lives and bodies.
This survey just scratches the surface of what women and girls face daily when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health. Meaningful change will come when society starts to value girls’ and women’s lives. Until then, the period will continue to be widely known as “Aunt Flow” or “shark week,” instead of as a normal, benign occurrence that 2 billion women experience every month.