Period taboos: why they still exist and how to break them

  • READING TIME 4 MIN
  • PUBLISHED November 02, 2023
  • AUTHOR Donna

Key takeaways

  • Periods are still a forbidden topic in many parts of the world. In Nepal, for instance, women+ and girls+ are banished to live outside when they menstruate.
  • Many people in developed world are affected by a lack of access to feminine hygiene products, known as period poverty. Some girls have to improvise with rags and newspapers because they can’t afford proper sanitary pads or tampons.
  • In some countries, periods, especially for the first one, are celebrated. In parts of Ghana, for instance, girls get to have a full-blown party.

Period taboos: why they still exist and how to break them


Many cultures consider periods dirty, explained Dr. Miriam Mottl, gynaecologist and sex therapist. “In orthodox Judaism, for instance, a menstruating woman is not allowed to be touched by her husband. After her period, she should wait another couple of days, and only after a ritual cleansing bath she is allowed to meet with her partner – when she is already ovulating,” the doctor says.

Period taboos know no borders

Prejudices about menstruation exist across cultures and geographies. In Nepal, Hindu communities may practice a period taboo called chhaupadi. It involves banishing menstruating women+ and girls+, who are considered unclean, to live outside in cattle sheds. The “tradition” has been officially banned in 2017 but nevertheless remains an awful monthly ordeal for many Nepals.

In India, also, a large number of women+ are not allowed to be in the kitchen or attend ritual practices during their periods.

In some places, protesting against these medieval practices can get you arrested. One activist in Kazakhstan has been punished with minor hooliganism because she was peacefully voicing her concern over menstrual discrimination, Amnesty International reported. 1

Lack of access to feminine products is widespread. In Kenya, for instance, nearly one million girls can’t go to school regularly because they can’t afford sanitary pads or tampons, according to the ZanaAfrica Foundation2 A lot of them resort to using leaves from trees, the insides of mattresses, socks or even reusing dirty pads.

Period poverty is an issue in wealthier countries as well. According to one survey, more than 137,700 girls in the UK missed school in 2017 because menstrual personal hygiene products are out of reach for them. 3 The issue is not solely lack of hygiene, period poverty also produces feelings of embarrassment and shame.

In addition, most European countries place a “luxury tax” on hygiene care products. This means that items like pads and tampons aren’t considered a necessity and are subject to higher taxes.

Old habits die hard

Where does period stigma come from, anyway? Dr. Mottl explains that, historically, the dysfunction of the womb was believed to cause “hysteria” in women+. One theory was that the uterus wandered through the body, creating symptoms and causing “hysteria”.

“These ideas have been born in ancient times, but they have been well and alive only a hundred years ago when women+ have been forced to masturbate in order to cure hysteria,” says Dr. Mottl.

Period can also be celebrated

But it isn’t all fear and hostility. Some cultures believe menstrual blood holds positive magical properties. In Morocco, for instance, menstrual blood has been used in dressings to treat open sores and wounds.

Periods, especially the first one, can also be celebrated. In Sri Lanka, girls with menarche get thrown a big party with gifts and good wishes, akin to a Sweet 16.

Women+ of Ojibwe, one of the largest indigenous groups in North America, have been self-isolating during menstruation as a way to restore, relax and bond with other women+ in the community. The tradition is making a comeback4

In some parts of Ghana, young girls sit under colourful umbrellas when they begin menstruating. The family would give the girls gifts and celebrate her like a queen.

Dr. Mottl believes these examples show that periods can also be perceived as something beautiful. “They are a sign that you are in a fruitful part of your life. It really is a miracle what a woman can do every month,” she points out.

Shame and lack of understanding

Sadly, we are still far away from reimagining periods as a matter of pride. “Asking for a tampon could already prove to be a mission impossible – many women+ hide them so that no one would know they are menstruating. For many it’s unpleasant to even say the word pad,” says Dr. Mottl.

In her experience as a gynaecologist, many patients also feel the need to apologize if they menstruate, especially if they experience a heavy flow. “But I always say to them: hey, that’s why you’re here.”

Female hygiene health is not discussed enough in schools. As a result, many women+ are confused about the details of their cycles and periods. “They don’t know how much they bleed, why the uterus contracts or understand how ovulation works at all. This is not meant in a bad way, it simply isn’t taught to us. As long as that’s the case, periods will continue to stay a taboo,” believes Dr. Mottl.

survey from YouGov found, for instance, that one in seven women+ and one in three men don’t know what happens during this period5 Another survey, conducted by OnePoll on 2,000 women+, showed that over half identified the uterus as a different body part. 6

Proper education is of even greater importance today as women+ menstruate more and longer than in the past. “An average woman goes through around 450 periods in her life. In the past, she menstruated about 100 times,” explains Dr. Mottl. The reason is that women+ in past centuries would spend much of their time being pregnant or breastfeeding which can delay the return of periods. “The challenges of our society are bigger.”

What can we do about it?

Period poverty forces millions of girls and women+ to miss school and may lead to anxiety and shame. But things are getting better in most places. Here are some things we all can do to break the taboo:

  • Re-imagine periods as something that is crucial for maintaining your fertility
  • Don’t hide feminine hygiene products (pads and tampons ), menstruation is nothing to be ashamed of. If a tampon falls out of the purse, so what!
  • Seek help if you’re worried about your period or cycle and advocate for your health.
  • Keep the conversation going – the more period is in the open, the less of a taboo it is.
  • Avoid using euphemism (like Aunt Flo); although they can be fun, they perpetuate shame around periods.

We invite you to share your thoughts on period taboos. Let us know by leaving a comment on Donna Instagram. We would love to hear it!

REFERENCES

  1. https://www.amnesty.org.au/the-women-breaking-menstrual-taboos/
  2. http://www.zanaafrica.org/
  3. https://www.thelondoneconomic.com/must-reads/shocking-report-highlights-extent-of-period-poverty-in-britain-82801/
  4. https://theconversation.com/how-a-native-american-coming-of-age-ritual-is-making-a-comeback-130524
  5. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/health/articles-reports/2019/03/11/lot-brits-dont-realise-pregnancy-possible-right-du
  6. https://metro.co.uk/2020/11/09/almost-50-of-women-dont-know-where-their-cervix-is-finds-study-13561743/

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