Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Recently, I was struck by a friend’s refusal to buy a pack of tampons in the supermarket. This show of her embarrassment, reveals the ongoing stigma of shame and confusion relating to menstruation. Despite the fact that almost fifty percent of the population have periods, this normal bodily function is still shrouded in secrecy and shame.

In the 21st century, menstruation is still wrongly viewed as an impure process, so by this assumption, women have to hide the fact that they are bleeding.  Numerous myths and misconceptions only add fuel to the fire. 

The veil of secrecy surrounding periods is particularly pronounced in the developing world. Often, girls and women are told that they cannot partake in certain activities when they are menstruating. When women in Tanzania are on their period, they are prohibited from farming crops because it is claimed they will wilt and vegetables will rot. In Nepal, some communities fear misfortune, such as a natural disaster, if menstruating women and girls are not sent away. 

Period poverty has no boundaries and inaccessible period products like tampons and pads is an issue that spans both the developed and developing world. From countries with significant period poverty such as Kenya and India to other more developed countries, women have to resort to dangerous and unreliable hand-made solutions such as rags, bed shirts, socks, dry sand, exposing themselves to infections. 

A lack of access to sanitary products affects not only health, but also education. A shortage of sanitary pads has led to an estimated one million girls in Kenya missing school every month.  This scarcity invokes a vicious cycle, because girls and young women that are regularly missing school are more prone to child marriage. Women are unable to access critical information making them more vulnerable to regressive cultures practices such as child marriage. 

It is clear that this stigma towards periods and shortages of period products are fundamental barriers to the advancement of women and the overall economic developments of entire societies. More investment into women’s education, as well as access to affordable and reusable sanitary products are important steps in our pursuit for global gender equality.

Whilst sanitary pads and tampons may look like the most practical period products to invest in, there are a number of alternatives that are sometimes even more affordable, comfortable and environmentally-friendly. In the present social pursuit of a zero waste environment (tampons, pads and liners amount to more than 200,000 tonnes of waste per year), perhaps it’s time to invest in sanitary products that are not only affordable but also sustainable. 

There are many different products on offer from moon cups and reusable pads, to menstrual discs and period pants. On a personal level, we have to start talking about periods comfortably. Menstruation is important and natural biological process that keeps the humankind going.