IWD: We need to talk about periods *blush*

19 February 2018

Every day, women all over the world are taking part in a monthly “walk of shame”.  Each of us has a preference for how we smuggle our tampon or pad to the toilet, be it the tried and perfected method of taking a handbag to the toilet or hiding a tampon up a sleeve. 

Tampon companies seem intent to continue to make new products that are more discreet than their predecessors with claims including that, if you squint hard enough, you could mistake a tampon for a sweet.  17 October 2017 was the first date on which a towel advert depicted red “blood” rather than the blue liquid we are used to seeing, despite red “blood” having been frequently seen on programmes such as Casualty or 24 Hours in A&E for years. 

We are encouraged not to talk openly about periods, to spare our own and other people’s blushes.  This is demonstrated by the vast number of euphemisms from around the world for periods:

  • Spain - I'm with Andrew, the one that comes once a month
  • Puerto Rico - The rooster sang to you yesterday
  • South Africa-  "Granny is coming in the red car."

Until recently, I didn’t think much was wrong with how I, those around me and cosmetic companies deal with periods.  But the impact of all the above is bigger than blushing.  We are experiencing a worldwide crisis of period poverty. 

Colins online dictionary defines period poverty as “being unable to afford female sanitary products”. This definition does not go far enough. Period poverty is not just a financial issue; it can result in a lack of education for some girls and mean a poverty of information for some women as to how to manage periods in a healthy way.

Women of schooling age globally are missing up to a week of school every month as a result of their periods.  According to a UNESCO report it is estimated that, in Africa, 1 in 10 female pupils miss school while they are on their period.  These are our future teachers, doctors, scientists, nurses, tech entrepreneurs, mothers, who should not miss out on their education as a result of something that affects approximately 50% of the population.  Whatever their futures have in store they should not be missing their education, they should have the choice, they should not have to struggle and they should not have to make do. 

Some women report that they cannot afford to change their products as frequently as they would like and this can lead to worrying hygiene and health implications which they may not be aware of.  Women learn from an early age that when it comes to periods, discretion is key, and this can mean that many are embarrassed to ask for support. But it is only by being open and talking about periods that we can help women manage their periods in a healthy and dignified way.

We are starting to see refreshing glimpses of people in the public eye talking about periods.  Fu Yuanhui, a Chinese swimmer, talked openly about the impact of her period on her performance in the 2016 Olympics. Heather Watson, British number 2, tennis player experienced dizziness, nausea and low energy levels that were so bad she was forced to call a doctor towards the end of the first set.  But these are reported in the press as exceptions, not the norm.  

So, what can we do? Clearly the price of tampons and towels needs to be slashed and one of my colleagues will be blogging about this in this series of International Women’s Day blogs. My suggestion is not for the government, it’s for every one of us.  We need to start talking about periods, men and women. Try not to hide your period, I’m not suggesting large displays of exhibitionism but small steps to shake off the stigma, reduce the embarrassment.  

The purpose of this blog is not a plea for Government change. We can start to tackle period poverty by working to abolish the stigma.  We can start taking small steps to reduce the embarrassment people feel about periods. Start the conversation, the more openly we talk the less people will feel embarrassed and the less discretion will be the norm.  Speak to your friends, your sister, your brother, your daughter and your son, speak to everyone, make it normal.  Try not to use euphemisms.   

It’s time to turn the walk of shame into a stride of pride. Or maybe just start with a walk, no shame.

IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.

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