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  • Elisabeth Marais

Period, poverty and period shaming: the vicious circle and how to untangle it

If you have been paying attention to the news by the end of last year, you might have heard about a Kenyan girl who committed suicide after going to school. Besides the tragic act itself, the reason behind her taking her own life unveils an even more dramatic aspect of the story: she had been expelled from school because she had stained her skirt with menstrual blood. She didn’t have any pads and her professor took the liberty of embarrassing her in front of the entire class, before sending the 14-year-old back home.

This dramatic event is unfortunately not an isolated incident of what is now commonly called “period shaming”. This episode is one of the many examples of girls being stigmatized because of having their periods.

Harakati za Lucy episode on the experience of a girl on puberty

What usually causes a girl to be period shamed is often that she doesn’t have the financial means to buy pads, making her bleed in public. Menstrual poverty is widespread in sub-Saharan countries, although statistics are missing, since there is very little research on the topic and the subject remains a taboo. A UNESCO report from 2014 evaluates the number of girls from sub-Saharan countries missing school during their menstruation as one out of 10[1] and some studies in Kenya show that while half of the girls questioned had a preference for pads, only half could afford them[2]. In Tanzania, low-income families are numerous, and it is more often than not that buying sanitary pads comes last on the list of the household’s needs, especially in rural areas.

However, another key point in girls’ difficulty accessing to menstrual products is the taboo surrounding girls’ puberty. It is a topic that used to be strictly restricted to women, making it hard for a girl to ask her father to consider adding pads in the family budget. Now, things are changing, and the topic has been widely challenged, either by NGOs or female leaders in the political and cultural scenes, in Western countries and African countries.

Meanwhile, many NGOs have been trying to fix the problem of period poverty, by providing pads to girls in need, from single-use pads to reusable ones, and even by donating menstrual cups. The Kenyan government has recently adopted a law ensuring that all girls will receive free pads, while also getting rid of menstrual products taxes.

But is fighting period poverty also fighting period shaming? Of course, allowing girls to feel comfortable and to attend school is formidable progress, but will it prevent teachers, parents or fellow classmates from embarrassing girls when they have an emergency?

Tai Tanzania on Jali Project providing pads to girls in schools

Period shaming certainly results from ignorance, taboo and stigma and the way to prevent girls from being humiliated from going through the most natural process their bodies go through is by educating and promoting social behavioral change.

Ending period-shaming does not only come from granting girls with the strict necessity: there is a need to give training to teachers, to open discussions with parents on how to tackle puberty and most importantly, to push the government to make girls’ education a priority. Tai has been using 3D animation to raise awareness on the matter, but you can also make a difference in many ways, from voting for people who have education at heart, to getting involved with organizations or to simply be an ambassador yourself and discuss the matter with people around you.

All girls and women go through ‘that time of the month’ and it is now time to call by its name, menstruation, and make it clear that it is a normal feature of the woman’s body and there is nothing to be ashamed of.

[1] “Puberty education & menstrual hygiene management”, UNICEF, 2014.

[2] “Mapping the knowledge and understanding of menarche, menstrual hygiene and menstrual health among adolescent girls in low- and middle-income countries”, Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli and Sheila Vipul Patel, 2017.

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