Knowing More About Periods Means Less Worry and Better Health

September 12, 2018

A bother, sometimes a pain — but periods don't have to be shameful, too.

Of course menstruation is a good thing: It's the body doing its job. Unfortunately, it is also the subject of many false ideas. For example, that it occurs only after a girl has had sexual intercourse, or that it means she will cause harm to any living thing she touches. (It doesn't. She won't.)

Around the world, girls starting to menstruate have questions:

What is this? Why is it happening? What do I do about it? How do I clean this? Am I dying? Should I tell someone? Do I have to tell anyone? Did I do something bad? Will I have to get married? Am I dangerous? What if it shows? What are they laughing at me?

I didn't have the answers. — Berhane, a girl in Sheno, Ethiopia

Every girl deserves accurate answers and resources. Periods are easier when you know what's going on — and when the people around you understand it too. Safe materials and practices prevent rashes and infections. Good menstrual health allows more girls to go to school. It opens doors — and minds — to women. 

Children in Zambia wash their hands in clean water in a UNICEF-supported effort to improve both sanitation and education about girls' monthly periods. Handwashing stations for girls' toilets have been built in hundreds of schools. In some, girls are also given menstrual hygiene kits. © UNICEF/UN0145995/Shermbrucker

Ignorance and shame about menstruation exist worldwide

Explicit taboos, as well as more subtle forms of stigma, lead to ostracism, mistreatment, early marriage, poverty and health problems, all of which impede the success of women and girls. 

A survey in Scotland found that girls miss school during their periods and that some cannot afford to buy safe menstrual products. Even in the most advanced countries, people do not always have adequate education to prepare them for menstruation. 

Good menstrual health opens doors — and minds — to women

In rural Nepal, menstruating girls are sometimes excluded from their homes and from contact with people, animals and even plants. The practice of hiding girls in menstrual huts is damaging to them, and sometimes fatal.

In Kayrepalanchok, Nepal, women who have received UNICEF hygiene kits listen to a UNICEF partner explain how to maintain cleanliness during menstruation. UNICEF/UNI187823

Women who are already vulnerable — for reasons like poverty, conflict or imprisonment — suffer further when they lack both the materials needed for managing menstrual hygiene and a means of disposal or washing. 

A study in Kenya found that poor understanding and management of periods increases sexual exploitation and restricts the freedom of women and girls — results that influence each other. 

Girls need money for sanitary products so that they can attend school. The Kenyan study shows that some resort to transactional sex in order to get menstrual supplies, risking pregnancy and HIV transmission. This behavior decreases when schools offer free menstrual towels and education about puberty and sexuality — and that saves money that would have been spent on future health care needs.

I was so scared, I actually thought it was a disease that had attacked me. I thought I was going to lose my life at any moment because it was really scary to start bleeding from down there. I thought I was going to die. — a student in Uganda

In parts of Uganda, poverty and menstruation keep girls out of school.  The reasons can be practical: "Sometimes when... mother has no money to buy material [sanitary pads], I don't bother coming [to school,]" one student said. Anxiety and embarrassment also keep girls home: "I felt like, oh no... I didn't want to stand up in class. My friends told me to go for lunch [with them]. I told them I didn't want to because I was having my period.... I thought, I don't want anyone to come near me. I thought, they will get to know. Maybe I'm smelling."

Solutions work beset when boys and girls build knowledge together

In Cambodia, where pubescent girls suffer fear and distress over menstruation, initiatives to improve menstrual health with education and facilities have led to increased attendance at school. A participating student says, "Now almost all girls come to school when they have their period." 

 

Top photo: In Sheno, Ethiopia, 14-year-old Serkalem learned about menstruation at her school's girls club. UNICEF/UN064404/Tadesse