‘Aunt Flo is visiting’, 'I'm on', ‘the decorators are in’, ‘time of the month’… all idioms used in the UK to talk discreetly about a natural process that a large percentage of the population experiences each month - periods.
Period. A word that is usually spoken in hushed tones by women and girls in the UK and is adamantly avoided by girls in Kenya; a taboo topic even amongst mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. Menstruation is one of the biggest barriers to girls’ education in Kenya. Every month Kenyan school girls collectively miss a total of 3.5 million learning days, just imagine the impact that would have on your education.
The silence on periods means that girls are often misinformed about periods, ill-equipped to manage their monthly flows and lack agency over their own bodies. This results in missed school days, and worse still can lead to girls dropping our of school entirely. Any mention of menstruation is shaped by shame and stigma, doing untold damage to girls’ wellbeing.
This is not a localised issue; the stigma of periods is felt by women and girls worldwide. A recent YouGov poll showed that half of British women have felt embarrassed by their periods and 37% of young girls have experienced period shaming. It’s no wonder we obsessively silence and euphemize our periods.
And yet it feels like the (crimson) tide is finally turning. As we have seen just this week the word period is being boldly spoken as matters of menstruation are being discussed on the global stage by politicians, journalists, teachers, charities and international organisations. The issues surrounding menstruation are reaching into our homes through discussion on popular social media, radio and television channels. This is a time to open the dialogue on periods; to break the taboo and explore the challenges that those of us that menstruate are facing.
In the UK, 1 in 10 girls are unable to afford menstrual products with 40% of girls stating they have had to use toilet paper due to a lack of access to sanitary products. In 2017, 137,700 girls missed school whilst menstruating as they were unable to effectively manage their periods. Period poverty has been a hidden problem in society and has become a reality for far too many women and girls in the UK. Whilst the so called ‘pink tax’ on many female products ensures that sanitary products are still viewed as luxury items, which leaves many women struggling to afford these essential items.
But things are improving. An international light has been shone on period issues and the phrase Period Poverty has now entered the public’s lexicon. The U.K government recently announced a new campaign that will seek to end global period poverty by 2030. UK Aid has pledged £2million to organisations that are working around the globe to break the taboo and stamp out period poverty, whilst a joint government taskforce has been set up to shed the stigma of menstruation in the UK. The challenges are huge and complex but the fact that periods are on the national agenda is a big step forward.
Periods have been hitting the headlines more than ever recently, with bloody brilliant news such as: NHS England announcing it will provide free sanitary products at hospitals, the creation of a new period emoji that will be hitting our phones this summer, and the recent Oscar win for the short documentary ‘Period. End of Sentence.’
Meanwhile in Kenya, the government is providing free sanitary towels to school girls after a successful campaign run by activists and organisations, including Dig Deep, and supported by the First Lady, resulted in the passing of the Basic Education Amendment Act in 2017. This historic law commits the government to providing “free, sufficient and quality” sanitary towels to schools, making tremendous strides towards addressing gender inequality in education.
Having access to sanitary products in school will help girls to thrive in their education. However, it is not only sanitary products that are needed but also education to support proper menstrual hygiene management (MHM), and this is something Dig Deep is working to achieve. Over the past few months we have been working on re-vamping our MHM syllabus so that it is ready to be rolled out to schools across Bomet County in South-West Kenya.
This new syllabus was researched and designed by our 'Period Team' (Nelly, Jen and Racahel) and it is something that we are all excited about. It is designed to educated girls about their bodies and break down the crippling misunderstandings and taboos that often scar young girls' psyche and confidence at a critical time in their lives. It also teaches girls that periods can usually be predicted, equipping them with the knowledge they need to manage their periods effectively.
In support of our MHM syllabus we provide safe and private female latrines which include shower rooms and access to clean running water, allowing girls to keep themselves clean and healthy during their periods.
Dig Deep’s menstrual hygiene programme is designed to educate boys and men about menstruation too. The importance of boys understanding that periods are natural and that they must support and care for their sisters and future daughters is critical to the success of breaking down taboos. Menstruation is not something that should be seen as a women’s problem, by normalising the conversation around menstruation and giving girls confidence in themselves we are laying the path for them to succeed and unlock their full potential.
Public discussion and acceptance of periods can and does change lives. The empowerment of women and girls depends on us having bigger and better conversations about menstruation. These conversations will lead to solutions and change.
Which is why we will soon be releasing more information from this years research trip, as well as launching a subsequent campaign to help break the silence around periods. Our Period Pride campaign will involve loads of way that you can get involved to help break the silence in your social circles, so watch this space.
The time is ripe for change. Period positivity is growing and we will keep breaking the silence. Join us and celebrate menstruation, whether you flow or not.