Menstruation taboos and stigma, which restrict girls and women from leading a normal life or participating in family and school, are severely debilitating and oppressive for women. Stigma combined with lack of access to sanitary products and proper knowledge on managing periods put girls and women at a disadvantage and are contraindicative to achieving gender equality. The roots of most of the menstruation taboos are embedded in gender discrimination. In order to fight against the superstitions and misinformation around menstruation, it is very important to promote awareness, educate communities about the scientific facts and bust the myths around menstruation. This article aims to put the spotlight on a few common menstruation myths and highlight some facts.
Table of Contents
Myth 1: The pain of a period is ‘just like’ anything you’ve experienced
The pain women get during a period is real and not fake. We are not talking about headaches or sprains. Some of us have to take off from work and curl up in bed, hoping the pinching and disabling cramps will subside because it is that bad. This condition even has a medical name called dysmenorrhea.
In fact, around 20 percent of women have dysmenorrhea that is severe enough to interfere with their daily activities. This condition affects women’s ability to concentrate, makes them more anxious, makes us downright unpleasant. It is also not anything you have experienced before.
Myth 2: It’s OK to dismiss our feelings when we’re on our period
There is a very real physical change in a woman’s body during this time. Days before the beginning of the menstruation, when she is “PMS ing” — her levels of estrogen drops while her levels of progesterone sharply increase.
Estrogen is linked to serotonin, the “happy hormone,” and progesterone is linked to that part of the brain which is associated with fear, anxiety, and depression. The effects of these hormones on mood are complicated, and while progesterone may depress some emotions, it has a mood-balancing effect also.
It may be tempting to write off seemingly drastic changes in moods as “just hormones,” but mood changes caused by hormones are still real. It may happen on a more monthly basis for us, but it doesn’t invalidate our feelings.
Myth 3: Hormones define women
Discussing hormones, women have been accused of being “hormonal” for a long time. Some men have even equated a woman’s feelings to hysteria, as if it’s an illness, to explain female behavior. Every human has hormones, and nobody likes them to be messed with not even men.
For instance, a study was conducted on male contraception, which was discontinued because male participants could not handle contraception’s side effects of acne, injection pain, and emotional disorders. But Women are forced to accept these same side effects with their birth control, PMS even if they negatively affect our overall well-being.
Myth 4: Period blood is dirty
Period blood is not the rejected body fluids or the body’s way of flushing out toxins. It is an excretion from the uterus through vaginal secretion — the fluid consists of blood along with cervical mucus, vaginal secretions, and endometrial tissue. Typically, menstrual blood is a little thicker than normal bleeding because of the tissue it contains. The condition is not ideal down there for a woman.
Myth 5: Periods are shameful
This myth is prevailing for ages in every corner of the world. Every girl is taught by her mother or other female members of her family to hide the menstruation hygiene items, not to discuss loudly with other male members of the family or to her male friends, a girl must whisper.
If we stop thinking that periods are shameful and dirty, then perhaps it wouldn’t be a humanitarian crisis. But the truth is, we have a long history of embarrassment to overcome. It’s so ingrained in our behavior that being put on blast for having our period does not help.
Myth 6: Period is a personal issue
Period is seen as a personal issue rather than a public health issue in most countries, and women during their periods are left in isolation leading to a significant amount of psychological trauma.
Myth 7. Menstruating women contaminate food
Mostly in rural India, there is a myth that women cannot water plants or cook during their period because their “uncleanliness” will spoil the food. In a study done in a random school in rural India, it was found that 55 percent of girls surveyed believed they could not cook or enter the kitchen during and 4 days after menstruation or food would sour. While I am all for more boys and men taking on household chores so that girls in India can get an education, this myth doesn’t help with that.
Myth 8. Menstruating women are impure and should not participate in religious activities
This myth exists in parts of the world ranging from India to Nepal to Indonesia and so on. Women are believed to be “unclean” while menstruating and are thus not allowed to enter “clean” and holy places like temples. This is a form of gender inequality that limits women from the same human rights like freedom to practice a religion that men have access to.
Girls and women menstruating are not unclean. They are normal, natural, and healthy. The myth that women cannot enter temples and the holy ground is culturally controversial, and a sensitive issue. When women are treated differently because of a naturally occurring body cycle it creates shame, taboos, and humiliation towards periods that is deeply embedded into society. And that is the only thing that’s ridiculous.
Myth 9. Women have “cooties” that will make men ill
The word “cooties” symbolizes slang for women. Cooties, a nickname for body lice or head lice, cooties first appeared as slang in 1915. Later, the word “cooties,” came to be used loosely and often humorously as well as disrespectfully to mean imaginary germs or bugs.
As it is believed that women have cooties they cannot interact with or touch men because men will become sick by touching an “unclean” woman. Some 20% of girls in rural India believe they should not talk to a male member of the family during menstruation.
And 40% of girls in India learn about menstruation from their mothers. So, if external education is not provided these traditions will persist.
Myth 10: Menstruating girls cannot participate in normal activities like sports or going to school/class
Menstruating girls are not allowed to go to school or play sports in many places. The chaupadi tradition is a practice in rural parts of Nepal where women are literally put in isolation during their menstruation. Again, the reason stems back to “being unclean”, women cannot be in classrooms with other students while menstruating. The myth goes back to the belief that a woman’s uncleanliness will anger Hindu goddesses. This belief is extremely psychologically disabling for girls.
Dispelling myths like chaupadi, where an estimated 16 percent of women in Nepal are forced from their homes into isolation is a task that will take effort, education, and awareness.
Myth 11: Showering Will Cause Infertility
In Afghanistan, the word “gazag” means to become infertile. In old Afghan tradition, it is said that during the days of menstruation, she cannot wash or shower or she will become gazag. It is a major risk for infection for women who is menstruating.
In many places, including Afghanistan, it’s common for women to use cloth as sanitary napkins. The benefit here is that it’s relatively inexpensive and a renewable way to manage periods. But the downside is, women are often ashamed to hang dry clean cloth used during menstruation outside with other clean clothes. So, women hide and wear sanitary napkins for too long which causes infections that are deadly to reproductive health. This can all be fixed if social taboos over periods are eliminated. In Nepal women are even barred from bathing, washing clothes, or using community water sources during menstruation.
Myth 12: Certain Food cause hard to menstruating women
Women in different cultures follow food restrictions and taboos during their period. In some communities, it is believed that eating sour food makes period pain and flow worse. In Nepal, women are not allowed to eat normal food during menstruation. Menstruating women in many African countries also have food taboos.
FACTS ABOUT MENSTRUATION
- On average a woman menstruates for about 20-25 years during their lifetime.
- The first period can be met with either celebration, fear, or concern. For every girl, this signifies an important transition to womanhood – a time when they would benefit from the support of family and friends. This will lead to a psychologically healthy human being.
- Many girls do not have a complete and accurate understanding of menstruation as a normal biological process. Educating girls before their first period, and most importantly, boys on menstruation build their confidence, contributes to social solidarity, and encourages healthy habits. This information must be provided at home primarily as well as at school. The community and society as a whole have a responsibility to build a menstrual-friendly and mentally healthy individual.
- Poor menstrual hygiene can pose physical health risks and has been linked to reproductive and urinary tract infections. Many girls and women have limited options for affordable menstrual materials. Providing access to private facilities with water and safer low-cost menstrual materials could reduce urogenital diseases.
- Girls and women with disabilities and special needs face additional challenges with menstrual hygiene and are affected disproportionately with lack of access to toilets with water and sanitary materials to manage their period.
- Many women and girls do not have access to menstruation materials to manage their menstruation, especially in times of emergency — natural disasters and conflicts.
- Globally, 2.3 billion people lack basic sanitation services in underdeveloped and developing countries, and only 27 percent of the population has a handwashing facility with water and soap at home. Managing periods at home in these situations is a major challenge for women and adolescent girls who lack these basic facilities at home.
The bottom line is menstruation taboos are not only crazy but are also huge obstacles that hold women back in many ways. They also impact the self-esteem and mental health of girls and women. It is hard to believe that these myths still exist today. But they do, and they need to be busted.
The good news is that there are many organizations and activists, both men and women who are working tirelessly to dismantle period stigma. One such exemplary man is Arunachalam Muruganantham, who is making a difference each day when it comes to eliminating period taboos and is not afraid of social pressure. His own family ostracized him when he created a sanitary pad that cost $0.04 (USD). Arunachalam is just one of plenty of other men helping end period taboos.
Awareness and education, especially for people of developing and underdeveloped countries, is necessary to empower girls and women everywhere. Together we can create a better world where girls believe periods are powerful and not shameful