Today, as we celebrate International Youth Day, Wafa Adam, independent sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and gender-based violence (GBV) expert and a founding member of AmplifyChange (youth specialist) is calling for a change in the conversation around menstruation.
Puberty is a strange time for young people. For many, it’s also a fearful time. Many of us are not informed about the changes happening in our bodies and what they mean. We are not told about menstruation or what to expect. So, when we start menstruating we feel scared and embarrassed. If we did learn of menstruation before, or after it starts, it’s mostly negative things we hear. Because in many cultures and religions puberty and menstruation are given a negative connotation. They are associated with sin and impurity.
This introduction to menstruation makes us feel ashamed of our bodies, making us wonder why we have become sinful. That’s why many young girls try to hide their newly growing breasts or changing body shape. We are often disgusted from the bleeding, because we are told it’s impure and dirty. We end up feeling disgusted of our sexual and reproductive organs. Because it must mean they are making our blood dirty. Otherwise, why is it different from blood of cut in any other area in our bodies?
Unfortunately, for us in the global South, menstruation also comes with responsibilities. Responsibilities that we have to alter our lives for. In many settings, we are now considered adults. When you are young, you don’t understand what is happening. But you feel shame, guilt and fear. That is the only way you can process all this negativity around an event your body is making naturally. Suddenly, you might not be allowed to leave the house unchaperoned, banned from playing with other children, told to cover up your body, hair or face. Some are banned from religious rituals, or certain areas in the house when bleeding.
We need to educate our young people more and better about puberty, menstruation and personal hygiene. Bodily pride is one of the first steps on the way to empowerment. How can we reduce stigma and shame and encourage young people to feel bodily integrity, if we teach them from young age that their bodily changes and bleeding is making them impure? Or sinful?
Furthermore, we need to give more options for managing menstruation: affordable and accessible products and a range of options to choose which is better suited. This is not the case in many places around the world. Especially in developing and post-conflict countries. We need to make menstrual health education and products available worldwide, with a focus on the most marginalised. We also need to ensure adequate consideration of menstruation needs when planning water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)/Health and Educational projects. We need to strengthen our global advocacy towards tax-free menstrual products; encourage governments to take responsibility and action towards menstrual health management as a cross-sectional and multi-sectorial issue. Governments and communities must care more for the requirements and needs of their young people.