There are few things in the world as ubiquitous as menstruation. Regardless of nationality, race or religion, half of the world’s population all share in this experience. What’s more, it has been happening since the dawn of time. So, why is there still such a stigma surrounding the subject?
To try to understand the full extent of this global taboo, I have taken a look at how periods are perceived around the world. The answers are sometimes upsetting, often shocking and occasionally, downright bizarre.
Unsurprisingly, the most difficult circumstances exist in the developing world, where there are many contributing factors, including economics, cultural stigma, male-dominated societies, religious views and a lack of education.
In several countries throughout Africa and Asia, a lack of adequate sanitary protection and clean bathroom facilities means many girls choose to miss school for 4-5 days every month. This accounts for over 20% of the school year, meaning their education suffers enormously1. And education is at the root of the problem. If more was provided to both girls and boys at a young age, it would go a long way to reducing the stigma and the embarrassment felt by the girls who decide to stay at home.
Unfortunately, there are areas where the stigma surrounding menstruation has an even greater impact on women’s lives. In rural areas of Somalia and Pakistan, for example, menstruating women are seen as unclean and are forbidden from entering mosques or praying2. In parts of India, there is a belief in some Hindu communities that a woman should not enter the kitchen during her period as any food she touches will be ruined3.
The most extreme stories come from Nepal, due to the tradition of chaupadi. It is important to note that the Nepalese government banned this practice in 2005, but it is still prevalent in several of the more remote regions of the country. It states that menstruating women cannot enter houses or use public water sources. It even bans them from touching other people. Many women are forced to leave their homes and live in sheds with no access to food or clean water for the duration of their periods. Exposed to the elements and at greater risk of animal attack, it is unsurprising that several women have died as a result of chaupadi and, thankfully, it is on the decline4.
Elsewhere, there are communities who take a more positive outlook on menstruation. The indigenous Cree people of Canada undergo a period of fasting and prayer when they first start menstruating, which ends in a large celebratory feast. Meanwhile, women from a tribe in Borneo adopt a very matter-of-fact view on the process, seeing it simply as a bodily fluid that should be evacuated, no big deal2. It seems these girls could teach us a thing or two.
From the matter-of-fact to the bizarre, as some stories from around the globe simply beggar belief. It is thought that showering during your period will make you infertile and there are myths that the blood will attract lions and sharks, or both. Fortunately, they don’t tend to hang out together. Traditionally, in Japan, women are not allowed to be sushi chefs because they believe that the menstrual cycle causes our sense of taste to be ‘imbalanced’2. However, these are nothing compared to a form of folk magic, called hoodoo, which believes that adding menstrual blood to coffee makes the drinker fall in love with you5. Think I’ll stick to tea.
The good news is that education and access to adequate protection are on the rise. Check out our article about sanitary innovations in the developing world to find out more. The internet is awash with stories of brave women from the most conservative societies, fighting to remove the stigma and improve education. A group of women in India set up the website menstrupedia.com, aimed at educating teenage girls about all things period. Also in India, a student started the #HappyToBleed campaign, which has reached thousands of people all over the world. Along with other such movements, these campaigns contributed to 2015 being labelled the ‘year of the period’. The year when women fought back against the stigma. There is still a long way to go, but the movement has started. Phew. Cup of tea anyone?
- https://www.actionaid.org.uk/about-us/periods-and-menstrual-hygiene/periods-and-girls-education/ Accessed on 05/06/17
- http://www.womenshealthmag.com/life/periods-around-the-world/ Accessed on 05/06/17
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-29727875 Accessed on 05/06/17
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-38559566 Accessed on 05/06/17
- http://metro.co.uk/2015/05/20/history-period-a-look-at-menstruation-through-the-ages-in-15-fascinating-facts-5204085/ Accessed on 05/06/17