Smashing the period taboo

2019-06-09 00:00

After reading about girls in South Africa who can’t go to school when they’re on their periods, Swedish writer Anna Dahlqvist decided to delve into social and cultural reasons around the world that have lead to menstruation being seen as a source of  shame. Rhodé Marshall asked her about her book, education and teaching boys about periods. 

About two billion people experience menstruation, yet it’s still seen as something to be ashamed of, not to be discussed in public and, from a young age, children are taught that tampons and sanitary pads should be hidden. As a result, people who have their periods often miss school, can’t go to work and can’t access health care for period-related complications such as heavy bleeding, endometriosis and severe pain.

In her book, It’s Only Blood, author Anna Dahlqvist delves into the shocking but moving stories of why and how people around the world – from Sweden to Bangladesh, from the US to Uganda – are fighting back against the shame associated with having a period.

#Trending spoke to her to find out more about her book and what she learnt while doing research in various parts of the world.

Q: Why did you write this book?

It started when I read an article about a group of girls in South Africa who couldn’t go to school during their periods. They couldn’t handle the bleeding because of a lack of resources, such as pads, toilets and running water. It made me furious that our periods, the very prerequisite for becoming pregnant and giving birth, are held against us to the level where we can’t exercise our right to education. It became clear that menstruators all over the world, including myself, are governed by a notion of shame and silence.

Q: What did you find as the core reason people around the world are being shamed for having their period?

I interviewed menstruators, activists and researchers in Uganda, Kenya, India, Bangladesh, Sweden and the US, and almost everyone said that the reason was because it’s a female experience. Someone said, “It is the shame of being a woman,” and I believe that is the main reason. The shame is a patriarchal instrument of power in a world where sexism is still very prevalent.

I also think it’s because it’s linked to sexuality – sexual maturity, coming from the vagina – even though there’s nothing sexual about it.

Another reason could be that it’s a bodily fluid we cannot control, it’s impossible to hold back, and we live in a world where we are expected to be in total control of our bodies, thus the blood becomes a threat to that order.

Q: What are some of the solutions you think are needed to improve education so that we can start by not being afraid to acknowledge and talk about periods?

We could all start by practicing using the word as the most natural thing in the world. For example, readily saying, “I’m on my period” or “I really hate how periods become a tool for oppression – could we talk about that?” And when I say “we”, I mean we as individuals as well as on a structural level, such as in the media, schools, workplaces and in the parliament. We should talk about menstruation when we discuss human rights, water and sanitation, access to health, gender issues. Acknowledge that it exists! Schools have a crucial position to start talking about this before girls have their first periods and are left alone with their fear, and it’s necessary to include boys all the way. But we can’t only focus on schools – the lack of knowledge about periods and the silence can be found everywhere.

Q: What were your findings for African countries?

My findings are that the shame and silence surrounding menstruation exist everywhere.

It differs between countries, groups and individuals, though.

When it’s combined with poverty, which is the case for many menstruators in Africa, the consequences can be catastrophic.

One difference I noticed regarding menstrual activism in Asian and African countries is that there’s a lot bolder activism in countries like Pakistan and India compared with Kenya and Uganda, for example.

Q: While the majority of lawmakers are still men, it’s difficult to get to a place where access to resources and support is seen as a human right. Is anyone making strides in providing people who menstruate with the dignity they deserve in countries where poverty makes it even more difficult?

There has been a substantial change in this area over the past ten years. On an international level, activists, NGOs and researchers have been able to slowly move it out of the closet, pointing out that it’s an issue concerning human rights and equality.

We do have a long way to go but there is work being done in most countries.

Q: Menstrual movements have grown over the years, but where do you think they can improve to drive the urgency of smashing taboos and helping menstruators receive the resources and support they need?

The menstrual movement needs to focus on education at all levels, instead of mostly focusing on the product.

There can be all kinds of practical solutions just as long as we have knowledge and are able to make choices.

We should not get stuck favouring disposable pads for the entire world, since it is not a sustainable way forward. The menstrual movement needs to be based on facts, needs to be bold and needs to become diverse.

Q: What advice do you have for parents teaching their children, especially boys, about menstruation?

Teach them how it works. I believe they need to know as much as menstruators themselves know about it. They will most likely have close relationships with menstruators, be it their coming daughters, partners, colleagues or friends. And they have a responsibility, as members of society, to take part in smashing myths and menstrual rules that are oppressive.

Do you think people should be more open about periods, or should it remain a private thing? SMS the keyword PERIOD and your thoughts to 35697. You can also email us at SMSes cost R1.50. Please include your name and province

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