By Alana Donaldson
Edmund Hillary, a 33-year-old beekeeper, was well prepared for his journey to the top of Everest. He was part of a large team that had supplies and porters, but the key to his success was his pairing with the experienced Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, who had intimate knowledge of the mountain.
What do mountaineers have to do with menstruation? It’s an analogy for how women and girls experience their menstrual journey. It shows how, across the globe, we are allowing girls to set off without the skills and confidence to navigate this new terrain. We are sending them off without the appropriate resources to succeed. Menstruation is a normal fact of life for women and girls; the journey starts at menarche and lasts until menopause, yet, they are too often ill prepared.
A girl’s first period (also known as ‘menarche’) is the first step of the menstrual journey. It usually starts at around the age of 13 and can either be a highly anticipated event or a source of fear. A UNICEF study in India found that prior to menarche, half of the girls surveyed had no information about menstruation. The difference between whether a girl has a positive or negative experience at menarche can often depend on how much prior knowledge she has of menstruation. For many girls, the real challenge of managing their period begins at school. In developing countries the lack of toilet facilities at school means that when girls start menstruating they don’t have anywhere hygienic, safe or private to manage their period each month. Girls find it difficult to change pads at school where there are no toilets.
Imagine what it would be like to be menstruating and not have a clean, private space to manage. Now imagine how much more traumatic this would be for schoolgirls who are at a stage where they are still building their confidence and self-esteem.
Whilst working to address menstrual hygiene management in schools in East Timor, WaterAid met 16-year-old Cartika, who described the change that having a toilet at school has made to her life: “It is great for us. Now we are happy. We don’t go to the forest [anymore]. We don’t need to be absent when we get our periods.” One of Cartika’s peers says: “There used to be more rubbish around. We would fall behind because of missed classes…Now we have learnt how to use sanitary products, how to dispose of waste, how we can eat everything, and that we can bathe.”
Women and girls are not able to conquer Menstruation Mountain alone. To be successful they need the support of boys and men in their community. One adolescent girl in Timor-Leste reported: “when our period comes the boys laugh and the girls are shy. We say to the boys – do you have a mother or sister? They have periods too.” Engaging men and boys in discussions about menstruation can help lift the taboo and stigma experienced by women and girls, and can even create champions and change agents like WaterAid has been supporting in East Timor. “It is good to learn about menstruation so we can support girls to manage menstruation at school and not embarrass them”, says an adolescent boy in Liquica District.
Managing menstruation can also be a challenge for women in the workplace. In Bangladesh, women working in garment factories, who are often young and do not have an education, lack access to clean water and a functioning toilet to manage their menstrual period each month.
The end of the menstrual journey is often bittersweet. Many women are relieved not to have to go on any more menstrual expeditions, but the end of the journey signals a change in identity for many women. Other hygiene issues – such as incontinence, a highly stigmatised experience in most cultures – are common around menopause due to changes in hormones.
We are not making mountains out of molehills when we talk seriously about menstruation. Menstruation is not something that women and girls can “just cope with.” For the majority of women and girls, scaling Menstruation Mountain is kept secret, discrete and even has strict rules.
In many cultures women and girls have restrictions placed on them during their period, such as not being allowed to participate in religious activities, to bathe or to eat certain foods. An extreme example can be found in the rural Western region of Tenzing’s Nepal, where women and girls spend time each month during their period living in a hut outside of the family home.
Global events such as Menstrual Hygiene Day are an important call to action. We need to raise awareness of these issues so that we can engage in meaningful conversations and find ways to address them together. If we are to break down stigma and overcome gaps in knowledge we need to hear the voices of women and girls. Let’s stop letting girls continue this journey without experienced guides. Let’s listen to their stories about this challenging and sometimes beautiful journey. This menstrual hygiene day let’s foster confidence, dignity and pride by supporting everyone’s journey over Menstruation Mountain.
Alana Donaldson is a current intern at WaterAid Australia, and is soon to complete her Masters in Public Health at Melbourne University. She believes periods are a public health issue and looks forward to the day when menstrual health and hygiene are no longer a taboo for women and girls globally.
Featured image shows Mount Everest at sunset. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.