Treating menstruation like the normal process that it is, *globally*

By Nikki Michelsen

Oct 21, 2022

Treating menstruation like the normal process that it is, *globally*
Periods; they’re making some noise (well, humans are but who’s being picky?) and it’s about bloody time. One of the most natural facts of life is finally being talked about, and included in this is period poverty. Let’s take it global…
Moving the menstruation discussions from the private sphere into the public has come with many eye-opening conversations that bring to light how women experience periods in different parts of the world, and in different socio-economic settings. In turn, especially on a global scale, this has led to conversations about how to address women’s access to (and ability to afford) menstrual health products. The big guns have gotten involved (for example, the UN & Plan International), as well as a huge range of grassroots organisations and social enterprises, signifying that on the global scale we can no longer ignore what has now become a human rights issue – the ability for everyone to manage their menstruation safely, and with dignity.
The interventions led by such organisations (the big & the small) are doing what they can to make a change – but overall how much positive change is this actually creating? According to Chris Bobel of the NY Times, too many of these ‘development interventions’ ignore the root issues that surround menstrual health management and blindly focus on providing women with new (often disposable) products. Her argument (and ours too) suggests that it doesn’t matter what kind of product a schoolgirl has access to if she doesn’t have a clean, secure toilet to use – simple as. Taking this a step further, if we don’t address the cultural and social stigma attached to periods, school aged girls will never be able to deal with their periods in a way that every girl deserves to – without shame.
The School Club Zambia (SCZ – our partner in change making) officially began as a grassroots enterprise aimed at helping community schools (who do not receive government funding) become financially self-sufficient by supporting them to start and run their own school led businesses. *Insert moment of “wow, that’s f*cking cool” right here*. What Lois, the (badass) co-founder of SCZ, quickly noticed was that despite the progress the partner schools were making, there were a number of young women still not getting to school each month because of their periods. This is where the Girls Programme was conceived – and we couldn’t be more excited that she decided to delve deeper into the serious problems vulnerable young women face in rural areas of Zambia.
So, let’s talk the Girls Programme. Aside from building new, clean toilet blocks for safe cleaning and changing, the programme also offers focuses on frequent workshops. Our most recent two day workshop was at Chisyabulungu School (a school partner of SCZ) where we managed to work with 46 young women between the ages of 11-13. This workshops focus point was innovative menstrual health education and teaching the students how to make reusable pads out of locally available materials. Importantly, it’s not only the girls that learn during the workshops. Here’s what we learnt:
  • 28% of the young women in the workshop had no idea what puberty was.
  • 54% of the girls did not know what menstruation or a period was.
  • None of the girls could correctly identify any parts of the female reproductive system.
  • Of the students that had started menstruating, 34% of them admitted to missing school regularly due to their periods.
  • Of the women that had started menstruating, 31% of them either used a cloth or nothing at all when they menstruate.
These numbers are significantly higher than 0, which we’re (seriously) not okay with. So we’re committed to working damn hard to keep tackling to reduce them (you in?). Menstruation education gives women and girls the autonomy to make informed decisions about their bodies, their lives and their futures. It also helps kick the underlying period stigma to the curb.
When we start to treat the idea of menstruation as the normal process that it is, it becomes more than just our dirty little secret and instead becomes something we can use to celebrate women. Rather than telling girls at a young age that their period is something to be ashamed of (something to be hidden), we should be encouraging them to be proud of the beauty that bleeding from their uterus is what contributes to the circle of life and makes us menstruators so damn indispensable to the world. We’re big believers that not only should we be starting here in the UK with better menstrual health education in schools (and better availability of products), but we should also be extending our circle to those women and girls that fight on a monthly basis to gain access to even the most basic menstrual health products. Challenging the stigma and taboo that surrounds some of the more ‘intimate’ workings of the body should be at the core of what we do when it comes to periods – both in lower income areas and everywhere else.
Ohne Team
Image credit: The School Club Zambia