A young girl’s first period is an important event that marks the beginning of puberty and entry into womanhood. For some, this is seen as a normal part of growing up, while others must struggle with harmful beliefs embedded in the culture that surrounds them. In this article, you will learn about some of the most common myths and practices related to menstruation and why cultural stigma regarding this natural and unavoidable biological process can be dangerous for young women.
Half the world’s population menstruates. Learning to deal with cramps, insomnia, hormonal migraines, and other premenstrual symptoms is challenging enough, but harmful beliefs and social norms that limit what a menstruating person can do also take a toll on our mental health. While in some places, talking about menstruation will merely make people uncomfortable, in others, menstruating women are excluded from their usual daily activities—they are not allowed to go to school or to work, and are kept from participating in social gatherings. Even in countries where most people consider themselves to be modern and rational, many women and girls still feel ashamed of this natural bodily process.
Menstrual stigma is when a person who menstruates is shamed or feels ashamed of their period because of cultural or societal beliefs about menstruation. The effect of menstrual stigma, however, goes far beyond feelings of shame and embarrassment; in many places around the world, women miss out on opportunities for education and employment because they have periods.
It may seem strange that, even in the 21st century, this topic is still often perceived as taboo—one that should be spoken of only in private. We must normalize sharing our experience of menstruation because shaming women and girls for a normal bodily function, which the human race depends on, not only keeps them from developing their full potential but also harms their relationship with themselves. Women in developing countries and impoverished communities are most severely affected.
Senseless shame holds women back. When a girl experiences her first period, she is generally only part way through her basic education. In many impoverished communities, the families of young girls don’t have the resources to buy period products or to ensure menstrual hygiene away from home, so their only recourse is to skip school. But poverty is only part of the problem. When asked, many girls report that boys in their school, and even some of their teachers, make offensive comments about periods, creating an atmosphere of discrimination that leads them to quit school.
According to UNESCO, about 131 million school-age girls worldwide are not attending school. That means they are less likely to earn a diploma and ensure a stable income, so they remain dependent on family members or spouses and are unable to make consequential decisions for themselves. Rigid dependence on others increases many risk factors for susceptibility to domestic violence—both physical and psychological. Women in this situation are also much more likely than men to live below the poverty line in retirement because they are unable to build financial security independently over their lifetimes.
Menstrual stigma and discrimination increase the risk of poor hygiene. Insufficient funds to buy period products and the social stigma surrounding menstruation place women and girls at risk of not practicing proper hygiene. When period blood leaves the body, it quickly becomes a rich breeding ground for many different bacteria, therefore tampons, sanitary pads, and other period products must be changed every few hours to avoid infection. However, girls who don’t have proper access to these products or feel ashamed to deal with them in public restrooms are at a higher risk of infection and disease. Poor menstrual hygiene is also responsible for most cases of toxic shock syndrome, which can be life-threatening.
Period stigma makes outcasts of women and girls. To this day, menstruating women in some cultures are not allowed to attend religious or social gatherings when they are bleeding. Some cultures go as far as to ban women from cooking for the family or sleeping with a partner during those days. For centuries, the Nepalese people practiced Chhaupadi, or the ritual banishment of menstruating women and girls—typically to a shed or simply a courtyard away from the house. Although the practice has been formally banned, it still exists in more rural and conservative areas of Nepal. Such practices not only entrench menstrual stigma but also devalue women and increase their social vulnerability.
Period stigma increases the risk of unwanted pregnancy. In many countries, when a young girl has her first period, it means she is ready for marriage and family life. Girls as young as 12 years old may be forced into marriage once they start menstruating. While such a young body may technically be able to reproduce, adolescent pregnancies carry a much greater risk of death and complications, including prolonged and difficult labor, severe anemia, hemorrhage, toxemia, and disability. Cultures that encourage menstrual stigma also tend to have higher rates of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies among adolescents because they limit educational resources for both girls and boys. Bearing children at a very early age, especially when society gives you little choice in the matter, can lead to life-long social and economic disadvantages.
Most modern religions don’t place ritual restrictions on menstruating women, but in more conservative regions of the world, many such rituals persist.
Certain Christian denominations ban women from participating in Holy Communion during their periods. In Islam, menstruating women are excused from fasting, but according to ancient books, they must not engage in intercourse with their partners at that time. In Judaism, women are also taught to abstain from intercourse while menstruating and to take a ritual bath to cleanse themselves.
In most Hindu communities, the onset of menstruation is cause for celebration; however, women are still not allowed to enter temples or participate in religious ceremonies. In more orthodox Hindu communities, menstruating women can’t enter the household and are prohibited from doing domestic work. Similarly, among Buddhists, menstruation is generally treated as a normal biological process necessary for human reproduction, but in more conservative communities, women are also excluded from religious rituals and not allowed to enter temples.
While some of these practices may seem harmless, ritual restrictions perpetuate a view of menstruation as something secretive and unclean and that women are seen as being less than men.
Myths and taboos regarding menstruation persist around the world. Only 2% of women in China use tampons because of a once widespread belief that using tampons would break the hymen, which has traditionally (and erroneously) been thought to be a marker of virginity. While abstaining from sex before marriage is no longer as important in modern China, many people still believe that inserting something like a tampon into a growing body can be harmful.
Menstrual stigma is also present in developed countries with high standards of education. In England, almost two million girls aged 14–21 have missed a full or part day of school because of their period, and in the US, period products are taxed as luxury items, placing an additional financial burden on people who menstruate.
And even today, when the internet makes information more available than ever, negative beliefs about menstruation continue to be passed on. According to a study carried out in the Netherlands, Uganda, Brazil, and Indonesia by Plan International, many boys and young men think of periods as something that should be kept out of the public domain. More than half of respondents considered menstruation dirty, and more than one third (38%) said that periods are disgusting. More than half also agreed that women shouldn’t go to school or work when they are menstruating.
Lack of accurate information about menstruation and adherence to discriminatory cultural practices make the stigma harder to overcome. While so many boys and men continue to believe that menstruation is a valid reason to exclude women and girls and deny them certain basic rights, damaging shame and discrimination will persist.
Although many harmful myths about menstruation can be traced back to traditional cultures, some communities celebrate the onset of menstruation as an important transformation in a woman’s life.
In South India, when a Tamil girl has her first period, her relatives gather for a special ceremony to celebrate her new status. She receives gifts, a special meal is prepared for her, and the older women bathe her in a ritual bath. In Brazil, this meaningful life event is celebrated by the young woman’s extended family, and similar celebrations are also held in some South African communities.
A beautiful celebration takes place when an Apache girl reaches puberty and gets her first period. The women close to her host a four-day celebration of eating, drinking, and dancing in honour of the Changing Woman to mark the beginning of a new chapter in the girl’s life. The Native American Hupa people have brought back the Flower Dance, a ritual part of a young woman’s coming-of-age celebration intended to set her on a positive path in life. Other native tribes in North America and the South Pacific honour menstruation through a period of introspection and special cleansing rituals. Although the menstruating women are separated from the community during this time, they choose this themselves in order to connect with other women and celebrate their femininity.
A young girl’s first period marks a significant change in her life—it is the doorway to womanhood and the beginning of her reproductive capability. Sadly, for too many of us it can also mean the end of equality and opportunity. Negative myths and taboos surrounding menstruation promote harmful beliefs and practices, perpetuating a vicious cycle of discrimination that keeps young women down and ultimately harms us all. While we still have an uncomfortably long way to go, we can start by talking openly with each other about our experience of menstruation. We can keep pushing our governments to make period products more accessible and encourage our schools to provide accurate information about menstruation and reproductive health for girls and for boys.
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