International Women's Day, celebrated every year on the 8th of March, commemorates women's quest to participate in society and to develop fully as individuals. Of the many issues that have caused us women to be stigmatised on occasion, we may note one that is part of our biology: menstruation.
Yes, menstruation. Or period, menorrhea, menses...call it as you may, the important thing is to talk about it. Menstrual hygiene management is crucial if we want to move forward on gender equality; however, this physiological process in women that has generated so much embarrassment – and continues to do so nowadays – is a stigma for many of us. Whether due to religious, cultural, or even political issues, women and girls all over the world are denigrated because they have their period, particularly in less developed countries. It may seem like a distant problem, but whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.
I had just turned twelve when it happened. I was eagerly waiting for it to arrive: I was going to become a woman! That's what I had been told, when both at school and at home I was explained what it was, and some of the hormonal changes I was going to experience. But nobody told me that, even though it is part of a woman's everyday life, a cloud of shame enveloped it. "Where am I going to throw the pads when I get back to school?" I asked my mother when I returned to Madrid. "In the waste bin, where else?" She answered.
Menstrual hygiene management is crucial if we want to move forward on gender equality
It seemed obvious that, in a country like Spain, about the enter the 21st century at the time, women and girls would have the facilities necessary to manage our menstrual hygiene, but who said a developing country is so in every regard? The first (and only time) the school called my mother concerning my behaviour was because of my menstruation. She did not have to come and pick me up because I was not feeling well, but because I confronted my Maths teacher (who was also the school's principal): the girls' toilets had no bins to throw out pads or tampons, and she wanted me to put the used pad in my backpack. "That is a girls' thing", she told me when she saw me throw it in the waste bin in the classroom; “then you should put a waste bin in the girls' bathroom", I replied. Not only did I run into trouble at school, but also whenever I went to the football ground to watch or play a game. There, toilet paper is freely available to everyone, but feminine hygiene products are non-existent (they don't even have them in vending machines). That reminds me of the campaign started in 2018 by three Celtic Football Club fans, ‘On the Ball’, to encourage UK football clubs to provide free period products at their grounds.
The thing is, even though as women we spend an average of 2,920 days of our lives menstruating, the equivalent of eight years, even though we have a menstrual flow once a month for about forty years of our lives, still a fourth of us continues to feel embarrassed talking about it. We continue to hear expressions like "it's that time of the month" or "aunt Flo is visiting" to ask a colleague to lend us a pad or a tampon, usually whispering, to afterwards head to the toilet with it hidden up our sleeve. And I wonder: How can we ever end the taboos around menstruation at the global level, if we cannot even do it in our local environment? By the way, my school placed waste bins in girls' toilets a few days later, in 1999.