Breaking the stigma surrounding menstruation

Photo illustration

Christine Khamasi was 12 years old when she started her first period. Because she had no feminine hygiene products, she used some old rags, sewing them together to make reusable pads and hoping that they would last. They didn’t.

“The old rags were no more, so no more school,” she said.

Days for Girls — an international organization that provides products and education about menstruation for girls — shared the story of Khamasi, who lives in Kenya, now a successful businesswoman who suffered at the hands of poverty, stigma and lack of education.

Her story is common in the United States, too. According to a study conducted by feminine product brand Always, 1 in 5 students in the United States has had to skip school or leave early due to an inability to access or purchase products for their period.

Period poverty forces teen girls to miss out on their education, turn to unsanitary alternatives for period products or reuse feminine items — a dangerous practice that can lead to potentially deadly conditions such as toxic shock syndrome. Lack of education, as well as the stigma that still surrounds menstruation, exacerbate this problem, making it difficult for girls to ask questions about their natural cycle or seek products when needed.

When Khamasi got her period at school, she said her dress was “soaked in blood.” She left school to go home early, only to find her sewn pads had been thrown away.

“It was hard. I could not go to school. For three days a month, I could sleep the whole day,” she said. “I used leaves. It didn’t help.”

Sandy Clark, chief of communication at Day for Girls, said stories like Khamasi’s are unfortunately common all over the world. “No girl or woman should endure shame or embarrassment for having her period. No one should be sent to a shed and forbidden to be in the kitchen or at school while menstruating. No girl should wonder if she has suddenly become deathly ill because she has started bleeding,” Clark said. “Yet, this is still happening, and girls and women are suffering as a result.”

Many girls, such as Amber Marbourg, a junior at St. Michael’s High School, have experienced period stigma firsthand. At school, access to period products and even painkillers for cramps is not accessible, and most girls resort to asking each other for help, she said. As for menstruation education, Marbourg said there is no formal class or course at school, and any time she’s asked teachers for assistance, she’s felt uncomfortable. She said she relies mostly on her relatives for information.

“[They were] almost shaping us to feel awkward and shy about the topic,” Marbourg said of teachers at school.

Lysne Tait, the founder of Helping Women Period, a nonprofit that provides feminine products to low-income and homeless women, said the lack of education “breaks down your self-esteem and self-reliance and people’s ability to take care of themselves.”

Elise Joy, the executive director of Girls Helping Girls. Period., an organization that provides period products and education, agrees that not enough is being done in schools to help educate people — including boys.

“The boys we meet really want to understand menstruation, at least on a basic level,” she said. “And it is critical that they do for what seems like obvious reasons. We have met too many grown men who have no clue about it — what the women in their lives deal with, how expensive products are, how strong women really are.”

Part of the problem is that long-existing silence makes the topic still seem taboo, said Destiny Abney, a junior at Mandela International Magnet School.

“It may become awkward … never knowing when someone might say ‘that’s gross’ to something that’s only natural and should be allowed to be spoken about,” she said. “A woman who tries to talk about [their period experience] may be told that it can’t be that bad and that they should stop complaining, which makes them not want to talk about it.”

“When a girl leaks or something, then it feels so horrible because some people think it’s disgusting,” said Anna Gunter, a sophomore at Santa Fe High.

So, what’s contributing to this stigma?

“We live in a culture that wants menstruation out of sight and out of mind,” said Virginia Sole-Smith, a women’s health journalist and author of The Eating Instinct, as well as author of the article “The Point of a Period” for Scientific American.

Fortunately, organizations and states alike are working to change both the stigma and accessibility to feminine products. In New Mexico, House Bill 21, introduced by Democratic state Reps. Andrea Romero and Joy Garratt, requires all public elementary, middle and high schools in the state to provide free menstrual products in school bathrooms.

“Based on the poverty levels in our state, many families may not be able to afford period products,” Romero said. “A box of tampons can cost around $10, pads typically range around $5 to $10 for a box of about 30, and alternative products such as menstrual cups are around $40.

“We’re talking about basic hygiene here. It’s a significant portion of our population, and it’s been hidden from mainstream discussion from the health perspective. It affects ability to learn, stay in school and be treated fairly.”

Organizations dedicated to serving women and girls during their period help raise awareness about menstruation and period poverty, and feminine product brands such as Always have launched empowerment campaigns to increase knowledge and accessibility to products. Using social media as a platform, many have expressed their solidarity with breaking stigma, whether it’s through artwork or events.

“Look no further than social media, where oversharing is becoming the norm,” Joy said. “We find young women and young men comfortable in talking about periods — after a little hesitation maybe — and that is fantastic.”

Tait said in just five years, she has noticed more openness when it comes to discussing menstruation — a huge difference from when she first started Helping Women Period and was told to refer to pads and tampons as “feminine sanitary products” on TV.

“The more we say ‘period, period, period,’ the less stigma it holds,” she said. “And the more we point out to people who may not know what a burden managing a period can be for someone of modest financial means, the more we all help.”

Niveditha Bala is a junior at Mandela International Magnet School. Contact her at niveditha.bala@mandelainternationalschool.us. Beth Walker is a recent graduate of Capital High School who is a freshman at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Contact her at bethwalker110@gmail.com.