Casting menstruation as a taboo is dangerous

While India is making progress on period awareness, the US is sliding back, as states pass regressive legislation.

Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28) is a day dedicated to raising awareness of the importance of menstrual hygiene for women, girls, and all people who menstruate worldwide and breaking the stigma and taboos surrounding the topic. (Graphic: Business Wire)
The state legislature in Florida has passed a law restricting information about menstruation in schools to student in sixth grade and above [Graphic: Business Wire via AP]

Late last month, we marked Menstrual Hygiene Awareness Day, an important date around the world for advocates like myself who have spent years working to improve menstrual equity.

In India, where I have worked for the last 15 years, I have learned how essential it is for the lives and livelihoods of women and girls to have access not only to high-quality period products, but also to education about this basic biological function. It really can be a matter of life and death when they are not adequately equipped to manage their periods with knowledge and resources.

In India, 70 percent of all reproductive issues are caused by poor menstrual hygiene; one in 10 girls below the age of 21 cannot afford sanitary products and resort to unhygienic substitutes; and 23 million girls drop out of school annually due to improper or lack of menstrual hygiene facilities.

While challenges remain, we, at the Desai Foundation, are happy to see that efforts by our organisation and others are bearing fruit. India has witnessed at least some progress in this area over the last decade.

By contrast, in the US, we are quickly losing ground with lawmakers across the country passing more and more laws blocking access to free period products or menstrual education in schools.

On March 23, the state legislature in Idaho blocked a bill that would provide free menstrual products to public school students, calling it “liberal” and “woke”.

“Why are our schools obsessed with the private parts of our children?” quipped State Representative Heather Scott, who voted against the bill. The not-so-subtle implication – that acknowledging periods sexualises young people – has become a running theme in legislative debates that should not involve menstruation in the first place. Basic biology is not political and it should not be controversial.

Like much of the political discourse surrounding periods, Scott wrongly and irresponsibly equates sexual maturation, or puberty, with adult sexuality. But getting your period is not sexual. It is biological.

As Charis Chambers, a doctor trained in paediatric and adolescent gynaecology, also known as The Period Doctor, says, “Adults don’t go through puberty – children do.” For roughly half of the population, menarche is a defining part of that process.

Still, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature passed legislation that would restrict conversations about periods in schools. Also known as the “Don’t Say Period” bill, it was created to limit access to sex education for public school students younger than sixth grade.

Taking effect on July 1, this legislation would prevent students who get their periods at, say, nine years old, which is not uncommon given that the average age of a first period is 12, from learning and/or asking questions about menstruation. They won’t be able to go to the school nurse and ask what is happening to them. 

The thing is, we need to talk about menstruation more, not less. We need to normalise conversations surrounding periods and prioritise menstrual equity as an essential and attainable goal.

The concept of “menstrual equity” is often misunderstood. Yet, all it means is that anyone with a uterus should have equal and comprehensive access to menstrual hygiene products and have the right to education about reproductive health. These efforts reduce the stigma surrounding menstruation and remove barriers to care that hold back entire nations.

While we may not have the same cultural prejudices in the US that exist in India, the proliferation of misinformation – or no information at all – about basic biological functions are equally dangerous in both places. Serious, long-term, health problems like endometriosis, PCOS, and malnutrition, as just a few examples, can result if people are uncomfortable asking questions about irregularities in their cycles, excess bleeding, pain or more.

If young people are taught that their periods are taboo, rather than normal in every way and an important gauge of their overall health, then they will not know how or will be ashamed to seek help for often debilitating conditions affecting their entire lives.

Knowledge is power, information is protection, and laws that deny children information about their bodies put them at serious risk, no matter where they live. We need to invest in menstrual health awareness and education for everyone and normalise the conversation surrounding periods and menstrual health.

It is not about sex or politics. It is about saving lives.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.