Menstruation is a part of everyday life for half of the world’s population. Despite being an entirely natural phenomenon, it is still surrounded by cultural stigma, making it a taboo topic virtually everywhere. Talking about periods makes people uncomfortable, and over the years we’ve even created a plethora of phrases like ‘time of the month’, just so we can avoid saying the word ‘period’. The message this sends to young girls is clear, that periods are unclean, unsavoury, and should be avoided in conversation at all costs. But the lack of conversation can only be detrimental. Without proper education, young girls don’t learn how to manage their periods hygienically, and without frank, open conversation worldwide, issues like period poverty can persist.
Despite the issue having existed for decades, the term ‘period poverty’ has only recently emerged. It describes how some women and girls are unable to properly take care of their menstrual needs because they can’t afford period products. Whilst one might expect this to occur largely in Least Developed Countries, it actually affects women and girls in towns and cities all over the world. Those unable to afford conventional sanitary wear improvise with various other materials, from toilet roll, to socks, to newspaper. The anxiety associated with using these makeshift methods results in girls feeling unable or unwilling to attend school. Those who miss days of school fall behind, and sometimes end up dropping out altogether. Here are four facts about period poverty that highlight the effect it is having on young women and girls today:
- Menstrual products cost more than £18,000, in a women’s life (£13 every month).
- 1 in 10 girls can’t afford to buy menstrual products according to Plan International UK.
- In some countries, people are still isolated from their communities while on their periods.
- The stigma surrounding periods has been shown to directly affect a girl’s potential to succeed. If a girl misses school every time she has her period, she is set 145 days behind her fellow male students.
Besides period poverty, the impact of traditional menstrual products on the environment is being increasingly recognised as another serious issue surrounding the topic. As more people are becoming plastic-conscious, the products used for menstruation are coming under scrutiny, revealing some startling facts. Here are just a few:
- One pad can take 500 years to break down
- 5 million tampons are flushed down the toilet every day in the UK
- 100 billion menstrual products are thrown away globally every year. This is enough to circle our planet 250 times
With all this in mind, myself and another research assistant Katherine decided to set up the Alldays Period Project. The aim of the project was to raise funds to buy reusable, environmentally friendly sanitary products for girls at the local school. We teamed up with ‘Subz ’, a South African organisation that makes reusable sanitary pads that provide girls with comfort and confidence, and last for three to five years. Our goal was to raise enough funds to provide all the 12-year-old girls at a local school with a sanitary pack to last them for five years, or the length of their school education. The pack would contain 5 reusable pads that clipped onto special pants, as well as a bag to store clean pads in.
A few minutes after setting up the GoFundMe page, kind donations began arriving. Within a few weeks, we’d already managed to reach our goal, and could begin planning the education session. We visited the school and left behind a box for girls to put in any questions they had about menstruation, but we assumed that most of them would be too shy to write any questions. However, after a week, we revisited the school and we returned to a box full of questions! We were so happy that the girls had felt comfortable enough to speak up. The questions covered various topics, from the basics of the menstrual cycle to safe sex, and highlighted just how vital, yet absent, this kind of education currently is. Here are a few examples of the questions asked:
- If I start my period today, when will it end?
- Why do men and women have sex?
- I am afraid of menstruation and bleeding in front of my class, what should I do?
- How can you get pregnant when you sleep with a boy without protection?
- What happens to your body before your menstruation begins?
The day of the education session, the 3rd April, soon arrived. The day before, the AWCRC kindly drove to Polokwane to pick up Maphaladi, the educator from Subz, who was to lead the session at the school. We were all really excited as we drove to the school with her the next day – it was finally happening! We arrived early to set up at the school, putting up a banner and laying out the sanitary packs. The 41 12-year-old girls then filed in, looking fairly shy and awkward as they shuffled to their seats. This shyness didn’t last long however, as the brilliant Maphaladi introduced herself, and began by getting them to answer lots of questions about puberty and male and female bodies and roles in society. They were soon putting their hands up to offer answers, the most notable answer being when they unanimously voted ‘no’ when asked ‘Can women build houses?’!
Maphaladi then carefully explained how to use the pads and look after them so that they last as long as possible. The girls repeated the instructions back to her to ensure they understood, then they lined up to receive the pads. There were a lot of smiles and giggles as they looked through their packs, holding up the clippable pants to compare different patterns. The session finished on a positive note, taking a big group photo before saying goodbye and heading back to the research centre.
We would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who helped us to reach this point. This has been the first fundraiser we’ve set up ourselves, so we’re really grateful for all the shares, money donated, and words of encouragement. Your support has helped increase the chance that a group of girls will stay in education, and that’s really special. Thank you!
Blog by Lottie Cross
Awesome photos by Holly Appleby (@thisplanetexists on Instagram).