We Need to Stop Being Afraid to Talk About Periods—Here’s Why.

The World We Want spoke to Megha Desai, president of the Desai Foundation, about how period poverty and stigma will prevent us from achieving the Global Goals.

Have you ever felt embarrassed talking about your period? Or nervous buying tampons or pads from a male sales associate? Maybe you’re comfortable discussing menstrual cramps with your closest friends, but when it comes to taking time off work because of the debilitating pain, do you prefer to say you’re just feeling a little sick?

And if you have never experienced menstruation, does the thought of someone bleeding once a month gross you out?

Half of the world’s population menstruates, but for some reason period talk still manages to make some men and women uncomfortable.

“The role that society plays when it comes to language and periods is so critical,” Megha Desai, president of the Desai Foundation, told The World We Want. “If 51% of the population bleeds and doesn’t have fair access to education around menstruation and how their body works, it can have really serious health outcomes.”

The Desai Foundation empowers women and children in the United States and India through initiatives focused on health and education. Some of these initiatives address period poverty, or menstrual hygiene management (MHM), so people who menstruate can learn how to properly manage their periods to improve their health and livelihoods.

“Period poverty, or the lack of MHM awareness, is a lack of education of what periods are, both for women and men; a lack of access; a lack of visibility in society,” Desai said. “It is also a lack of language, and our being unable to connect with this really normal thing that half of the world does.”

This problem with language refers to society’s inability to talk about periods and properly address menstrual hygiene, and it does not solely affect conservative cultures or developing nations. Up until this year, the European Union forced member countries to impose a 5% minimum tampon tax, and more than half of US states currently apply sales tax to period products.

That’s why the Desai Foundation wants to make sure that every country around the world recognises why MHM is critical for their future.

“One of the things I feel really passionate about is connecting the Global Goals a little bit more,” Desai said. “Typically, what we do ends up in the ‘gender equality’ box. But [MHM awareness] is also related to water and sanitation, livelihood, access to work, education, etc.”

In an informal survey from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) conducted in the Arab states region, people who menstruate shared that they experience shame and anxiety relating to their period. One woman recounted that she was unable to eat meals with her family when menstruating and never learned how to properly manage her period.

“We’ve seen that almost 20% of women in India end up having some sort of vaginal or uterine infection that can lead to infertility,” Desai added. Improper education and resources relating to menstrual health and hygiene are linked to higher rates of bacterial vaginosis, sexually transmitted infections, and teen pregnancy, according to the World Bank.

In South Asia, more than a third of girls are not in school during their periods and miss out on essential education. This is in part due to a lack of proper sanitation services, such as running water and bathroom facilities.

“If you are a girl that’s menstruating and it’s impossible for you to go to school for four or five days [each month], there’s no way for you to continue your education. If you haven’t been educated, you are less likely to join the workforce,” Desai continued. “This isn’t just a women’s issue. This is an issue of the GDP and the health of a nation.”

So how can we address these issues that affect everyone, everywhere? First, we have to meet people where they are, especially in communities where periods are considered taboo.

The Desai Foundation does so through awareness sessions across 8 states and 2,300 villages in India. These sessions walk the line between educating people about why their periods aren’t dirty or shameful without alienating them from their cultures. Megha Desai shares that in some rural communities, this means helping women continue using rags even though disposable pads may be a safer alternative.

“One of the biggest problems we’ve seen is that [people who use rags] are drying them outside but covering them with a sari or a petticoat because they’re embarrassed,” Desai explained. “If there’s no direct sunlight giving the antibacterial effect, and the rags are being folded while they’re still wet and put in a cupboard, that’s just a breeding ground for infection and bacteria.”

She added: “At the end of the day, behaviour change is hard. In our awareness sessions, you’ll see us talk about rags and reusable pads.”

The other side of MHM awareness is removing the stigma and embarrassment surrounding periods. We have to talk about them and all of the beauty, change, discomfort, pride, and blood that go along with them.
The Desai Foundation launched the #PledgeYourPeriod campaign a few years ago with the goal of ending the whispers about menstruation.

“I was still hearing my friends in America whisper about their periods. I was like, if we can’t change the language here [in the United States], how can we expect people in much more conservative communities to change the language?” Desai said.

In the lead up to Menstrual Hygiene Day, the #PledgeYourPeriod campaign is tackling period poverty with the help of social media and people around the world. Supporters can post photos of why they are pledging their periods, or videos of themselves breaking a period stigma, while using the hashtag #pledgeyourperiod. For every 10 tagged posts, $100 will be donated to help women in need.

“You can pledge your period to help girls stay in school. We’ve had trans men pledge their periods and say, ‘Hey, we have a really different relationship with our periods and want to educate folks about what that looks like.’ It’s really about celebrating your period and making people feel comfortable owning it,” Desai shared.

Then on 26 May, the Desai Foundation is hosting a panel on Menstrual Empowerment, featuring menstrual health activists US Representative Grace Meng, author Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, designer and UN Ambassador Rachel Roy, and the founders of Hummingway, actress Ashley Greene and Olivia Khoury.

The world has come a long way in talking about and improving women’s health. Each year, more countries and regions are scrapping sexist taxes on essential health resources or making period products free for all who need them. But along with the progress are setbacks, including limits on women’s rights to make decisions concerning their sexual and reproductive health.

For Megha Desai, the work doesn’t stop until these setbacks do.

“My dream is that women have the education they need to properly manage their periods; that everyone—male, female and other—have this knowledge to be supportive to the bleeders in their lives; that there is fair and equitable access to the products that people need,” Desai said. “If we celebrated periods instead of downgrading them, we could really change the mental and emotional state of bleeders around the world.”

She added: “I deeply believe that if we solve these three things, the health of a nation will elevate, the GDP of a nation will elevate, and we will be able to see what women can really do.”