THE BLOG

Taboos Around Periods Hurt Everyone

05/26/2015 04:19 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

Having your period?

In many places in the world that would mean you wouldn't be able to attend school or participate in religious or marriage ceremonies. You might be sent off for exile and seclusion during menses. In addition, many women and girls do not have adequate knowledge, supplies or basic infrastructure to manage their hygiene and pursue daily activities such as school, play or work. Taboos and stigma related to menstruation exist to some degree almost everywhere.

Human rights experts, UN agencies and forward-looking media have started to understand menstrual hygiene as an issue of dignity and human rights. Recent articles have looked at how a lack of access to sanitary supplies affects homeless women. Human Rights Watch has documented the impact of poor access to menstrual hygiene on girls with disabilities, women in detention facilities and girls in schools.

In fact, we and others have found that governments' failure to adequately inform women and girls about menstruation and enable menstrual hygiene management can compromise their rights to privacy, non-discrimination and equality, education, health, work and decent working conditions, and to water and sanitation.

Why are governments failing to adequately address menstrual hygiene management? One reason is that the stigma pervades even the halls of government. As one UN expert stated, "[T]he silence and stigma surrounding menstruation makes finding solutions for menstrual hygiene management a low priority."

On average, a woman will spend between 1,400 and 3,000 days menstruating over the course of her life. At this moment, hundreds of millions of women and girls around the world are menstruating, and many are experiencing the dual negative impact of stigma and lack of resources.

Yet, we know very little about the health, social or economic outcomes of how women and girls manage their menstruation. Commitment to an issue is often demonstrated by whether data collection is prioritized. And, frankly, menstruation is not a data priority. Many countries don't even collect data on age of menarche (a girl's first period) in their population. And health surveys often ignore the subject, despite the fact that what studies have been done show that the early onset of menstruation may be linked to early sexual initiation, the uptake of alcohol and other substances, and premature school dropout.

A systematic review in May 2012 of over 4,100 academic journal articles that discussed menstruation found that only 14 of the articles discussed the health effects and 11 the social effects of menstrual hygiene management.

The fact that there isn't an abundance of academic data on the issue doesn't mean there isn't a problem. There is, and it's a human rights problem.

The taboo of talking about menstruation may be changing, albeit slowly. And nongovernmental groups are urging governments to act. Recent campaigns in UK and Australia have called on the governments to stop taxing menstrual hygiene products as "non-essential" items. The hashtag #HomelessPeriod has also raised awareness and funds to address the added burden homeless women in the US and UK face in managing their hygiene during menstruation.

This week, organizations around the world are celebrating the second annual Menstrual Hygiene Day, taking the opportunity to "end the hesitation around menstruation." Others are calling for more concerted government data collection, including on how inadequate menstrual hygiene conditions impact education, work and health.

Taboos around periods reinforce gender inequality and make it difficult to solve the challenges many women and girls face in managing their hygiene. There's no shame in periods -- but it is shameful that hundreds of millions of women and girls cannot deal with menstruation with dignity and privacy. And it's shameful that many governments do little to understand the impacts, and to support women and girls in managing this basic function. It's time to break the taboo and start talking solutions.