When Girls Miss School Due to Menstrual Shame, It’s More Than a Women’s Health Issue

May 28 is Menstrual Hygiene Day, which is a global advocacy platform that brings together the voices and actions of non-profits, government agencies, individuals, the private sector and the media to promote good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) for all women and girls.

While working for a nonprofit in Kenya several years ago, Cora founder Molly Hayward met a local girl named Purity. She later explained to Forbes an experience she had several weeks into her time in Purity’s village, when Molly saw her and asked why she was home during the middle of the school day. “The girl explained that she had her period and had no access to sanitary pads. As I came to understand, this was an unfortunate reality for all the girls in the village.”

As Hayward would come to learn, that reality extends far beyond one village in Kenya. Because menstruation isn’t life threatening, it is often ignored at a policy level. Classified as a health issue, menstruation advocates find it difficult to have their voices heard when, especially at a global level, those health issues which are life threatening take precedent.

Molly Hayward Cora

Cora’s founder, Molly Hayward with a student in India

Because the impact of period poverty reaches so far beyond women’s health alone, it is perhaps time for paradigm shift. Menstruation is a health issue, yes, but it’s also far more than that. When girls are forced to drop out of school because they do not have what they need to manage their periods, menstruation also becomes an economic issue. As well as social. And political.

menstruation in Kenya

Students in Kenya, image courtesy of Cora

Menstrual Shame Throughout History

To understand why a paradigm shift is necessary, it’s first imperative to understand the shame and stigma that have long accompanied menstruation. Let’s start with The Bible—the most read book in the world. According to Leviticus, Book 15, “Whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her during that time will be unclean until evening. Anything on which the woman lies or sits during the time of her period will be unclean.” We see examples of this idea of “uncleaniness” resonating throughout history—in some communities even today, menstruating women aren’t allowed to touch meat, they eat and drink from a different set of dishes, and are even banished from their houses to menstruation huts.

Pop culture hasn’t helped. Commercials for feminine hygiene brands have long used blue liquid to represent absorbency. We are inundated with blood all the time in TV and movies—gruesome makeup made to appear as blood and guts in murder mystery shows or war movies, and yet, a more accurate representation of period blood is “gross,” unclean. From the “plug it up” scene in Stephen King’s Carrie, to 2007’s Superbad, in which Jonah Hill’s character is unable to contain his disgust that “she perioded on my fucking leg,” while his friends laugh in delight. We see it time and time again: menstruation is disgusting. Bleeding women are unclean.

When Shame is More than an Embarrassing Movie Scene

In her book It’s Only Blood: Shattering the Taboo of Menstruation, Swedish journalist Anna Dahlqvist conducted interviews in Uganda, Kenya, Bangladesh, and India throughout 2015 and 2016 to better understand the effects menstrual shame has on girls and women around the world. In the book’s opening dialogue, she asks Saudah, a 14-year-old girl in Kampala, Uganda, if she gets angry when the boys laugh and tease her. Saudah responds no, Dahlqvist asks her why not, and Saudah replies, “They’re laughing because the girls can’t keep themselves clean.” Dahlqvist explains, “It is said as a matter of course. A simple stating of facts. Those who laugh are not doing anything wrong. The girls with the blood stains are. They simply have themselves to blame if they fail to hide the menstrual blood. If they cannot keep themselves clean.”

It's Only Blood

The Consequences of Shame

It’s bad enough that girls and women all over the world feel embarrassed, isolated, and shamed by a natural bodily occurrence. But what effects does that shame have, not only on the girls and women who experience it but also on our communities at large?

According to Dahlqvist, “the statistics on the proportion [of girls] who stay home while on their period vary, from 20 percent in studies from Ghana, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone to roughly 30 percent in Nepal, South Africa, and Afghanistan, 40 percent in Senegal, and 50 percent in Kenya.”

She goes on to report that in parts of India, the number rises as high as 70 percent.

period poverty in India

The reason behind these shocking numbers is simple. From her extensive qualitative research with the students, Dahlqvist puts it down to “fear of leakage. The smell. Shame in general. They have nowhere to change menstrual protection or to wash themselves. Nowhere to throw away used menstrual products.”

Joan Anyango, a student in rural Uganda explains to The Guardian, “I used to use cloths that I would cut from my old T-shirts to keep the blood from staining my dresses, but they were not enough and blood would still stain my clothes. Boys used to laugh at me and I eventually simply stayed home whenever my periods started.”

Another student, Auma Milly echoes Joan’s sentiment, saying, “When I started menstruating, I had many hard days. I could not get myself any materials to use to stop myself from soiling my clothes. It was better for me to stay at home rather than go through that shame at school.”

Students like Joan and Auma may miss one or two days of school per month. Others might miss the entire week, resulting in a loss that equates to roughly a quarter of the school year.

Shame—caused both by lack of resources and cultural ideas of menstruation—is literally ruining the educations of girls around the world.

What’s Shame Got to do With the Economy?

According to a report by The World Bank, a woman’s future earnings grow with every extra year of primary education. When a girl receives an education, she marries later, has fewer, healthier children and is less likely to experience sexual violence.

This isn’t rocket science. People who bleed make up half of our global population. When even a portion of these people miss out on basic education because they are too ashamed—due to stigma, culture, and lack of adequate resources—to go to school, their opportunities are severely limited. When these opportunities are limited, it affects the entire world—literally.

According to The Guardian, “With every 1% increase in the proportion of women with secondary education, a country’s annual per capita income grows by 0.3%. Closing the unemployment gap between adolescent girls and boys would result in an up to 1.2% increase in GDP in a year.” And these numbers don’t necessarily take into account the emotional, social, and political benefits of increasing opportunities for women.

Menstrual Shame Isn’t Just a Third World Problem

But it’s not just girls and women in poor countries who suffer. In the U.K., reportedly one in ten (and closer to one in seven in London) girls and women aged 14-21 have been unable to afford period products when they needed them.

In the United States, nearly 1 in 5 girls report having missed school for lack of adequate period products. A shocking number, until you consider how our federal government classifies menstrual products.

According to Harper’s Bazaar, “SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, i.e. food stamps) and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), both U.S. programs designed to help low-income families, classify pads and tampons as ‘luxuries,’ alongside products like cigarettes and pet food.

How Can We Keep Girls of Menstruating Age in School?

Menstrual shame has deep roots in many cultures, often exacerbated by lack of education, policy, and resources. Thus, we are unlikely to see its eradication overnight. What we can do, to begin to reduce some of the shame that keeps girls out of school and impacts opportunities for women everywhere, is to address these deficiencies.

1. Education

Much of the shame around menstruation comes from misinformation. In The Independent, Andrew Trevett, Unicef Kenya chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, explains, “The sensitivity around menstruation means the girls and boys are not receiving any information. You would expect it to be a mother to daughter conversation but it seems that is not done. Also, there is no information from school.”

In order to challenge shame, we must first address when, how, and where we discuss menstruation.

period poverty

Students in Kenya, Image courtesy of Cora

Chris Bobel, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies as well as the president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, discusses the menstrual revolution in her book New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation (2010). In a conversation with Dahlqvist in It’s Only Blood, she expresses a concern shared by many other women with whom Dahlqvist spoke during her research. Bobel writes that “the menstrual revolution becomes meaningless if it comes to revolve around products when we need to challenge the shame first.”

Through its giving partners in India and Kenya, Cora provides reproductive health education to girls in need. This resource helps tackle shame head-on and is one that can be passed from generation to generation more easily than any physical product.

According to Cora’s founder, Molly Hayward, “Female empowerment is absolutely critical in order to alleviate poverty and we believe that starts with education. Girls are half of the potential workforce and deserve the same educational opportunities as the boys in their communities.”

2. Policy

While we do indeed need to address menstruation from a broader contextual lens, American feminist writer and journalist, Jessica Valenti says it is also important to remember that it is still a health issue, too. “But much in the same way insurance coverage or subsidies for birth control are mocked or met with outrage, the idea of women even getting small tax breaks for menstrual products provokes incredulousness … because it has something to do with vaginas. Affordable access to sanitary products is rarely talked about outside of NGOs – and when it is, it’s with shame or derision.”

As citizens, we can exercise our right to vote for leaders who understand the greater implications of period poverty and menstrual shame. Again, these are not “just” women’s health issues; these are not even just women’s issues.

If we can’t even speak about menstruation without shame within our law-making bodies and organizations, the U.S. has a long way to go to catch up with much of the developed world.

For example, both Japan and Zambia have paid leave for menstrual pain. In August, Scotland became the first national government ever to provide free access to period products in all schools, colleges, and universities. Australia recently got rid of its tampon tax while Spain reduced its tampon tax from 10% to 4%.

Policies not only affect women’s ability to bleed safely and securely, they also change national conversations. Our governments have responsibilities to the girls and women they represent—to show them their health and education are valued, that we won’t forget about them when they miss school for a completely preventable reason.

As citizens, we can exercise our right to vote for leaders who understand the greater implications of period poverty and menstrual shame. Again, these are not “just” women’s health issues; these are not even just women’s issues.

3. Resources

To date, Cora has donated more than 10 million pads to girls in need. According to Hayward, “Remarkably, when girls have access to menstrual supplies, the school dropout rate decreases by 90%. Investing in our girls and their education is one of the smartest decisions we can make and a real step towards alleviating poverty.”

menstrual shame

Students in Kenya, Image courtesy of Cora

But there is always more to do. Even when girls have access to products like pads, tampons, and menstrual cups, there are additional obstacles to overcome. Clean water, soap, and private bathrooms are some of the resources needed to reduce the shame and stigma around menstruation.

Cora will continue in its mission to work to eradicate period poverty, and also to continue building a brand that celebrates menstruation. If we can get more girls to stay in school while menstruating, we will be able to see global results on an economic level. If we can all work to play a part in educating girls and reducing the shame around menstruation, women everywhere will be freer and more empowered.

Get our weekly digest for advice on sex, periods, and life in a female body


Continue the conversation


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *