Menstruation is a taboo subject for too many people, male and female alike, leading to misunderstanding, confusion, and prejudice. Menstruation has long been a signifier of Otherness; difference – but not an acceptable difference, a difference that stigmatises and silences. Such embarrassment and stigma around menstruation not only affects how women and girls feel about menstruation, but also makes it difficult to cope at a very practical level. It hinders finding adequate solutions for menstrual hygiene management, giving the issue a low priority. While women and girls experience the challenges in different ways and to varying degrees, menstruation remains a taboo all over the world.
The framework of substantive equality as articulated by Sandra Fredman provides a basis for addressing gender inequalities that are fuelled by this taboo. Using the four dimensions of substantive equality, in this post we show how a more honest and direct understanding of menstrual hygiene, can contribute to ensuring substantive equality for women and girls not only when menstruating, but at all times.
Menstruation and the onset of puberty is one of the leading causes of the gap in school attendance and education between boys and girls. The reasons for girls stopping their education may be cultural: girls are perceived not to need an education, and it may be no longer acceptable for them to mix with boys. Or the reasons may be practical: the lack of access to a safe and clean toilet to manage their menstruation hygienically and in privacy. The outcome is the same – girls do not gain the same level of education as boys. The pattern of disadvantage continues when women lack adequate facilities at work. Redressing such disadvantage requires, for instance, the promotion of girls’ education and/or the construction of toilets at school. But until menstruation is understood as a cause of disadvantage, there can be no redress.
Addressing stigma and stereotyping
Menstruating women and girls in many cultures are seen as ‘dirty’ and ‘impure’, and menstruation is to be hidden from view – and this is largely internalised by girls and women. Even in countries where managing menstruation is straightforward, women and girls do not openly discuss their periods. Menstruating women are stereotyped as aggressive and emotional. This makes way for prejudice against women’s ability to work on an equal footing with men. Such deeply entrenched socio-cultural norms open the door for discrimination. Educating not only girls, but also men and boys on the intricacies of menstruation provides opportunities for discussions that can shed light where there is currently shame and confusion.
Embracing difference and achieving structural change
To achieve substantive equality, it is essential to understand and explore the biological differences between men and women, between girls and boys, the process of puberty, menstruation and reproduction and their physical, emotional, social and cultural impact. But these must not be understood only as difference and not as devaluation. To achieve structural change, the need for menstrual hygiene management must be addressed at all levels, from legislation and policies, to financing and tax reforms, to institutions, down to the very practical necessity of disposal units for menstrual materials.
Enhancing voice and participation
Women and girls’ voices are often silenced and marginalised, and this is accentuated in cultures where it is usual for menstruating women and girls to withdraw from social and household activities. Yet, for something as personal as menstruation, women’s and girls’ voice and participation is key. Women and girls must be able to decide how they want to cope on the days they menstruate, what activities they want to engage in or not, what materials or products they want to use to catch the flow. Substantive equality requires enabling women and girls to take these decisions in an informed way and not to be judged for them.
Menstrual Hygiene Day, 28 May, provides an opportunity for women and girls to give voice to their experiences, their worries and fears about managing their menstrual flow, and to find ways of normalising menstruation within society. An international conference takes place next week for women and men to debate the socio-cultural aspects of menstruation. More must be done to remove the stigma and discrimination against women and girls. We would all benefit from discussing these issues more openly. Celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day!
Inga Winkler and Virginia Roaf have explored menstrual hygiene through the lens of human rights in a longer article: Taking the Bloody Linen out of the Closet – Menstrual Hygiene as a Priority for Achieving Gender Equality, Cardozo Journal of Law and Gender 2015 (21/1), 1-37