Periods are natural, but taboo. Women worldwide are often still made to feel ashamed about this aspect of their lives.
On International Women’s Day, women around the world celebrated the hashtag #pressforprogress: a call for gender parity. How can we drive such change in a world where female bodies continue to be shamed, stigmatised and commercialised, and where women themselves internalise this shame?
When it comes to menstruation, the United Nations has criticised harmful traditional practices like Chhaupadi in Nepal, which involves isolating menstruating women as they are considered to be impure. To focus solely on the developing world, however, ignores the fact that insidious cultural practices also exist in countries like Australia, where women, including trans men and some non-binary people, are made to feel embarrassed about a naturally occurring biological process. From migrant women in metropolitan cities, who describe their menstrual experiences as shocking and frightening, to remote indigenous women being called myall (dirty or wild) when on their period, it is clear that period shaming happens everywhere.
Professor Jane Ussher at the University of Western Sydney confirms that period shaming is directly linked to secrecy and cultural taboos. She explains how across Australia, the major concern with periods is the fear of blood being seen. Dr Carla Pascoe, from the University of Melbourne, describes how sanitary product companies perpetuate period shaming by making the concealment of periods the focus of their adverts. Her study of the attitudes towards periods over the last 100 years, found that dealing with the embarrassment of periods has been more of a priority for women than dealing with their often painful symptoms.
This shame not only impacts upon the ability of women and girls to feel comfortable in public spaces, but can also affect their comfort within their own homes. Dr Pascoe relates the story of a girl she interviewed who was wrapping up her pads and ‘putting them in a bag under her bed because she didn't want to be seen using the family bin’.
Other forms of vulnerability in society compound period stigma and further undermine women’s ability to participate in public life. Often women who are homeless, escaping domestic violence or living in rural communities, have to resort to rolled up pieces of newspaper and toilet paper to manage their periods. Not only are these methods uncomfortable but they could also lead to irritation or infection.
In some indigenous towns, young women without access to menstrual products are skipping school altogether. Dr Nina Hall originally set out to evaluate the quality of drinking water in remote communities, but discovered that in small towns menstrual products were too expensive, and buying them from male-owned stores was too embarrassing. As a result, indigenous girls choose to miss several days of classes every month.
The United Nations has said that such stigma against menstruation and hygiene is a violation of human rights, including the right to human dignity. As signatory to theUnited Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the Australian government is obliged to invest in ensuring access to adequate and equitable hygiene for all women and girls.
Even if women were to overcome the stigma against periods, menstruation is still not supported structurally or politically. For example, bathrooms in some public spaces do not cater for menstruating girls and women. A rubbish bin may be placed outside the toilet, or there may not be even basic infrastructure – including soap, running water, and toilets that flush – to support people on their periods.
At the policy-making level, the Australian government has refused to change its tax on periods. A petition to abolish tax on sanitary products in Australia, by student Subeta Vimalarajah, highlighted the lack of gender parity in a country where condoms, lubricants and sunscreen are tax free, while women’s tampons and pads are not. Despite the petition garnering more than 100,000 signatures, the federal government has failed to respond.
More recently, the Victorian Women’s Trust crafted a ‘Menstrual Policy’ proposal that would grant women up to 12 days of additional paid annual leave. This sought to remedy situations where women with debilitating cramps and period pain use their sick day because they are unable to go to work. The Trust also outlined two other options for employers to help their employees to deal with period pain at work: making workspaces more comfortable for those who are menstruating, and enabling people to work from home.
Policy change is not the only way to tackle the cultural problem of period shaming. In May last year Plan International Australia, in collaboration with Plan UK, designed and launched a period emoji to reignite the conversation about menstruation. Many women were happy to see the campaign raise this issue, and hoped it would start to normalise conversations about women’s health.
It is only when menstruation and periods become mainstream, to the extent that television adverts feature real blood instead of blue dye, that women, trans men and some non-binary people can overcome this very real and, dare I say it, bleeding-ly obvious impediment to progress.