Guest blog by Elizabeth Goolden, MA in Global Development
Issues around poverty, and a lack of access to menstrual management products, adequate toilet facilities, or clean water are framed as ‘Period Poverty’ in the UK or US, but as ‘inadequate Menstrual Hygiene Management’* in other countries. Same issues, different name.
Since 2015, there has been a noticeable increase in the media coverage of period-related topics. Obviously, this has been super positive for breaking taboos and (finally!) encouraging people to talk more openly about periods.
However, I have noticed the emergence of a divide between how we compare the experiences of people who menstruate in the UK, with those from other countries.
The academic literature rarely focuses on the experiences of those living in poverty within wealthier countries… and if it does, it implies that these individuals are still somehow ‘better off’ in terms of access to products, and facilities, than people living in poorer countries. This downplays the challenges faced by many people in the UK who may be homeless,lacking access to clean water, or a private toilet, or simply unable to afford to buy menstrual management products.
This artificial divide reflects a wider misconception, as outlined by Hans Rosling in his last book ‘Factfulness’ , that the world is divided into us and them.
This way of thinking encourages people in the UK to develop negative stereotypes of people living in poorer countries, encouraging us to dehumanise them, or distance ourselves from their experiences.
In response to this problem, I decided to compare the experiences of menstrual taboos and period poverty, in the UK and Uganda. I interviewed numerous people who work in menstrual health, such as doctors, educators, volunteers and activists. My aim was to understand common feelings, reactions and experiences of periods in both countries, and to identify any similarities or differences.
People in the UK and Uganda share many of the SAME reactions, feelings and experiences of period taboos!
Cultural and environmental differences do play a role in the way in which people are educated about, or experience periods. But, the interviews revealed that people in the UK and Uganda struggle with extremely similar concerns surrounding their periods, and that these are influenced by the same types of taboos. Here are just a few examples:
The perceived need to keep your periods secret from others was mentioned time and again in both the UK and Ugandan interviews.
Standing up in class with a stain on your skirt is a constant worry for young people in both countries…
“The girls feel embarrassed, and especially if they have a male teacher in class. They feel so much embarrassment they will not participate.” (Ugandan key informant)
“I remember I was at school and a male form tutor was teaching us about periods…we were all so embarrassed…” (UK key informant)
‘“This was a girl who didn’t know anything…so she stained her dress…it was hard to calm her down…there was a lot of tears…she was thinking there was so much embarrassment” (Ugandan key informant)
Poor menstruation education is a global issue. Both Ugandan and UK children struggle to access evidence-based information from school, family, or friends. This situation is what enables taboos to continue, by passing down stigmatising myths to the next generation.
Schools sometimes assume that a child’s mother will provide guidance, but if she has never been taught about periods and the menstrual cycle herself, this is an impossible task. After all, mothers are influenced by the same societal taboos…
“Mum never let me wash my hair [during my period]…and I’ve since asked her why? And she said oh I don’t know but that’s just what my mum told me” (UK key informant)
“We grow up listening to what the elders tell us, we think what they tell us is the truth so when they tell you a menstruating women is dirty you probably believe it… you don’t know if it is true or not because in the end, you don’t understand what the menstrual blood is” (Ugandan key informant)
Being unable to buy menstrual management products, due to alack of money or not having any power over the family budget, is a problem for people living in the UK and Uganda.
In both countries, individuals described completely inadequate (but also often ingenious) ways to soak up menstrual fluid without the use of proper menstrual management products. Slices of bread, cut mattresses, old cloth, leaves, grass, newspaper and dung are just some of the inappropriate items that people have been forced to use.
“A woman…was literally down to her last 50p…[she] bought a 50p loaf of bread, gave the first half to her kids and the other half she used as sanitary towels. Literally folding up a slice of bread and that was her sanitary towel…that was in [the UK], last year” (UK key informant)
“People cut their bed-sheets to make…a sanitary towel or like from a mattress…some people, when they are menstruating they make a pile of cow dung or sand and you can sit on from morning until night when the blood is coming but that is in some of the rural areas but in town most people use disposables” (Ugandan key informant)
But it’s not all doom and gloom… My research also showed that people who menstruate- rich, poor, young, old, from the UK, or Uganda- were empowered when they overcame menstrual taboos by learning more about their bodies.
“They feel so encouraged, they feel so empowered!” (Ugandan key informant)
These findings begin to tell the story of the shared nature of menstrual taboos in higher and lower-income countries. Although this research is only on a small section of people in the UK and Uganda, it suggests that among these two, very different countries – in terms of average national income level, culture, and environment – people’s feelings and reactions to menstruation are very similar. This is a result of common myths, stigma and difficulties faced in terms of managing menstruation without adequate access to products, or financial and educational support.
Busting menstrual taboos is essential for improving the lives of people who menstruate throughout the world. I believe in the need to think globally, to avoid slipping back into the assumption that this is ‘their problem’, not ours. Understanding how much we have in common reminds us that we are not alone, and that our experiences are shared by many around the world. Let’s break down barriers and tackle these taboos together!
*Menstrual activists prefer the term ‘Menstrual Health Management’ to avoid the incorrect assumption that menstrual fluid is dirty, or that it somehow causes ill health- lack of access to clean water is the real issue.
Elizabeth Goolden is a recent MA graduate in Global Development from the University of Leeds. She is a passionate supporter of gender equality and the power of women in development, which inspired her to research menstruation for her dissertation. She is now looking for a role within this sector, keen to break down harmful menstrual taboos within the UK, Uganda and beyond.
 Rosling, H., Rönnlund, A.R. and Rosling, O. (2018). Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–and why Things are Better Than You Think. Great Britain: Sceptre.