In the early '90s cult teen film Clueless, Alicia Silverstone's character Cher famously tells her high school teacher that she is "surfing the crimson wave". Translation: to be on one's period. As a teenager, I idolised Cher, not only for her fashion, but for her heroism. The very thought of mentioning my period in class made my cheeks burn.
Globally 2 billion women and adolescent girls menstruate each month. An average woman will menstruate over 2000 times throughout her lifetime. That adds up to approximately six years of her life.
Given the commonness of menstruation, why does the stigma around it remain so widespread? Globally, women and adolescent girls struggle each month to overcome secrecy, shame and fear in managing their menstrual period. Yet menstruation is a normal bodily function, a sign of good health and fertility.
Menstrual Hygiene Day, celebrated annually on May 28, is about opening up the conversation. Now in its third year, the day aims to galvanise action to break the taboo. It brings public attention to 'menstrual hygiene management', a long neglected global health issue. As with many gendered issues, menstrual hygiene management is rarely addressed by policy-makers.
Menstrual Hygiene Day puts a spotlight on the challenges that women and adolescent girls face in managing their menstruation hygienically, in privacy and with dignity. The challenge is largely linked to not having access to adequate toilets or clean water.
When menstruating each month, women need access to a toilet, clean water to bathe, and a supply of affordable sanitary products. Close to 1 billion people in the world don't have a toilet and over 650 million don't have access to safe water. Half are women and girls.
Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable. Where schools do not have toilets or water, girls may skip days of school each month to manage blood flow, pain and to avoid embarrassment. This is a large scale problem. There are over 250 million girls aged 10 – 14 years -- the age at which girls typically start menstruating -- living in the world's least developed countries. Girls report staying home for several days each month or having to resort to changing sanitary pads in nearby bushes.
In addition to accessing facilities and menstrual hygiene products, women have a right to understand the basic facts linked to their menstrual cycle and how to manage it. A 2014 study found 50 percent of girls in India had no knowledge of menstruation prior to getting their first period, Cambodian girls report avoiding changing their pad at school due to taboos around menstruation and girls in Timor-Leste report being bullied and teased by their male peers about their periods.
If the taboo and stigma surrounding menstruation is to be lifted, the attitudes and practices of men and boys also needs to change.
NGOs have been increasingly addressing menstruation in schools. Toilet facilities are designed to ensure they allow girls to change and dispose of sanitary pads in privacy. Advocacy in Indonesia and Cambodia has led to education on menstrual hygiene management becoming part of the school curriculum, helping to reduce fear and increase support to girls in school. Menstruation has been a trending topic on social media, with 2015 being dubbed as 'the year of the period' by menstrual advocates. A global campaign, "Menstrual Hygiene Management in Ten", was launched in 2014 with a ten year global commitment to addressing menstrual hygiene needs of girls in all schools globally. Each year UNICEF and Columbia University host a virtual menstrual hygiene management conference with global speakers. Even the First Lady Michelle Obama has spoken publically on the topic.
So let's pay homage to my 90's hero Cher in Clueless, and ride the crimson wave of menstrual advocacy. It's time to break the taboo. Let's build a strong coalition of gender, adolescent health and education practitioners to reduce stigma and bring menstrual hygiene management to the forefront of global development efforts. Most importantly of all, let's support women and girls to be central to achieving the solutions, and in fostering their own development and health outcomes.
Menstruation can no longer remain a neglected topic. Relieving women and adolescent girls of the burden of menstruation secrecy and taboo is integral to achieving social change that enables women to realise their rights to education and health, and to achieve their full economic potential. It is about gender equality. After all, it affects two billion women and adolescent girls each month.