Almost every woman will have had an experience at some point in her life when her period has come unexpectedly, and inconveniently. It may be in the middle of a class, at the gym, at a work place function, just after putting on a pair of brand new white jeans, on a date, at a concert, or any of those other situations it’s happened in during your worst nightmares. For Kiran Gandhi, her period came at the starting line of the London Marathon. You probably saw the media coverage of Kiran’s controversial run in April 2015, where she made the bold decision to free bleed for the full 42 kilometer marathon. Although Kiran did receive some positive feedback, she also faced a huge amount of backlash from both men and women, with some people judging her actions as “unhygienic” and “disgusting as f***”. Kiran responded to these comments by pointing out how judgements such as these seriously impact a woman’s confidence in her body and in herself, and highlighted how many women in the world do not have access to products to help them deal with their periods. Kiran’s run brought many questions to the surface of many people’s minds. Why is it that a natural bodily process can be seen as so horrific? Why is something that enables life such a taboo topic to talk about? And why do we have to pretend that periods don’t exist?
Menstruation is not a new, outrageous, unheard of concept - women have been doing it since...well...forever. So why, in this modern age is the open bleeding of a woman responded to with such repulsion? A huge part of this attitude is the fact that words used to describe and express menstruation are not part of our normal vocabulary. Education regarding menstruation is limited to biology and nothing more. As young girls we are very rarely taught to believe that menstruation is something to be proud of, and something that gives us an ability which only we as women can have. Similarly, boys are given very little information about menstruation, aside from girls getting blood in their undies and being grumpy at “that time of the month”. It’s not a topic that is talked about often, other than between women in hushed voices, or in vulgar jokes - here furthering the shameful attitude towards menstruation that already exists. We, as a society seem to have two approaches on the topic of periods: 1 - pretending that they don’t exist, or 2 - acknowledging their existence as something disgusting and shameful. The very term “sanitary products” can have a detrimental effect on the way in which we think about periods, implying uncleanliness. The fact that there have only been three initiatives in the last five hundred years for menstruation - pads, tampons, and cups - yet we see a new version of iphone come out every six months, further shows that anything to do with this supposedly “unclean” bodily process is not worth the attention of innovative minds.
For many girls and women in the world, access to menstruation products is non existent. In Sierra Leone, more than a fifth of girls miss one out of every four weeks of school each month because they don’t have any means of dealing with their period, so they stay home to avoid humiliation. In Afghanistan and Nepal, three out of ten girls miss school for the same reason. In India, nearly a quarter of girls drop out of school completely once they start menstruating. Girls and women are still using tree leaves, scraps of newspaper, and cut up sacks to deal with their periods, although these methods are largely ineffective. With such important initiatives taking place to get girls into education, it seems crazy that they are not being supplied with the simplest of basic necessities to deal with their natural body processes, which would enable them to attend school more easily. Luckily, the importance of menstrual health in developing nations is becoming more of a focus for humanitarian organizations, and there are clever initiatives in place for raising awareness for the issue, and providing much needed menstruation products to girls and women in developing nations. One of these organizations is the company Be Girl. Be Girl has one goal: to provide girls and women access to sustainable, thoughtfully designed menstrual products that support both their physical and mental well-being, so that biology and stigma are not barriers to opportunities. They sell underwear in developed nations, and for every pair they sell, they send a specially designed pair to a girl in a developing nation. These custom designed underwear are leakproof, and made with a built in pouch to be filled with absorbent materials. For more information, or to order your pair, go to https://www.begirl.org/. Initiatives such as these are a step towards overcoming the stigma surrounding menstruation, as well as being an important and vital necessity to enable girls to stay in education.
But access to menstruation products is also an issue in the developed world. The classing of menstruation products as “luxury items” not only makes dealing with periods a financial struggle for many women, but also implies that having a period, and being able to deal with it is not something that a woman has a right to - despite it being a natural body process. After running the London Marathon, Kiran received an email from a homeless woman, saying that dealing with her period was one of the hardest aspects of living in poverty. The reaction of people describing Kiran’s run as “disgusting” highlights how difficult is must be for women on their periods living in poverty. If they cannot afford the products to deal with their periods, they cannot conform to the social norm of keeping their cycle private and hidden, and so, if their bleeding shows, they are socially ostracised.
Kiran’s campaign work to bring about more acceptance on talking about menstruation, and providing girls and women in developing nations with appropriate products, is part of a movement that is really only just beginning. It is vital for the feminist cause that society loses the stigma surrounding menstruation, as this stigma creates shame about femininity. We cannot live in a society where girls and women are continually told that their reproduction system is “disgusting”. We cannot continue to sit by while girls are forced to give up education because they are not supplied with the basic resources to deal with their periods. Women’s biology, and the stigma surrounding it cannot continue to put up barriers in the way of opportunities. Sure, this is not a life or death issue, but it is something that marks the depletion of girls' confidence, and it has huge negative environmental and socio-economic impacts worldwide. We need to be able to talk about menstruation without feeling embarrassed or ashamed. We need to identify access to menstrual products as a basic human right for all girls and women. And we need to be proud of the bleedin’ cool things women’s bodies can do.
All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.