Lisa Wilson, Plan International Ireland’s Media and Communications Officer.
Whether you’re living in Uganda or here in Ireland, if you’re a girl, the chances are you’re going to face some sort of stigma or taboo around your period.
For many, these experiences will go hand in hand with being unable to afford period products – or ‘period poverty’.
Eunice, 15, from Uganda (pictured below) had no idea what was happening when she first started her period. “I thought I had been stabbed with a needle,” she told us.
When she found blood on her clothes, she felt ashamed and was too afraid to go to school for fear others would laugh at her. Even when she knew what was happening, the cost of sanitary wear meant her mother sometimes gave her rags to use instead.
For many girls in Ireland, this story will be all too familiar. At Plan International Ireland, our own research tells us that over half of girls are embarrassed by their periods, while more than a third didn’t know what to do when their period started. And once again, stigma lies at the heart of the story.
As 17-year-old Aoife (a member of Plan International Ireland’s Youth Advisory Panel) told us, “The taboo surrounding what is an absolutely normal bodily function is so clear to see amongst young people throughout Ireland today. We’ve all seen it: the tampon sneakily tucked away in a school jumper sleeve on a dash to the toilet, the whisper to a friend “can I borrow a…. pad?” the last word trailing off into an almost silent murmur.”
Regardless of where it happens, period stigma takes a major toll on girls’ lives. It impacts on their self-esteem and can lead to them missing out on school.
For girls living in the world’s poorest communities, it can mean dropping out of education completely, leaving them at greater risk of child marriage, early pregnancy and exploitation.
Only a small fraction of these women and girls can afford sanitary products, and have to improvise by using newspapers, leaves, pieces of clothes, cow dung, and other materials for menstrual hygiene; consequently, young girls stay away from school during their menstruation period.
It’s clear that if we want girls around the world to reach their full potential, then we must tackle the taboos and prejudices that surround periods, recognising that this is both a cause and consequence of gender inequality.
The shame and stigma surrounding periods are having a serious impact on girls’ health, education and wellbeing.
Our research shows that in Ireland:
In March 2019, a ‘Period Poverty’ motion was passed in Irish Parliament, which Plan International Ireland’s Youth Advisory Panel had championed.
What’s especially welcome about the Motion is the intention not just to tackle access to products, but also the issues at the root of this problem. In Plan International, we call this the ‘toxic trio’, namely the high of cost period products, lack of education and the stigma and shame that surrounds periods. Often these factors act in concert, making it harder for girls to ask for information or products or to discuss their experiences with others.
Education is critical to solving this problem; because it’s only by learning and talking about periods that we can smash the idea that they’re a source of shame to be dealt with in secret, rather than a perfectly normal bodily process.
“Education will in turn have a knock-on effect with the stigma that surrounds periods. Introducing new and informed menstrual education in schools, will allow for more open conversations about periods with not just girls but boys to. Boys and men need to be brought into the conversation about periods if we are to ever normalize a completely normal bodily function.” Aoife says.
Meanwhile, for young women in Uganda, education has also been critical. That’s why we’re working with schools like Eunice’s to create menstrual hygiene management clubs, where girls and boys can learn about periods and make reusable sanitary pads for the girls to take home.
Eunice is now a member of Plan International’s Health Club, sharing knowledge about periods with other girls in her community.
“I think the Health Club is good because having knowledge about menstruation helps reduce the fear that it is a disease.” Eunice says.
We’re also constructing girl-friendly toilets in schools and communities and increasing access to sanitary products, so girls can manage their periods with choice and in privacy.
Unfortunately, for too many girls around the world this kind of support simply isn’t available. It’s high time that changed.