Breaking the cycle of silence - menstruation matters

For girls in Jordan, the silence around menstruation can be damaging

Sara AlHattab
A woman looks outside a tent
28 May 2019

“I don’t go to school during my period. I get embarrassed by the boys and girls in the class.”

Every month, 12-year-old Zahra misses several days of school. She’s not alone. It’s normal among her group of female friends to miss up to one week of classes every month. The girls explain these absences by claiming to have a cold, stomach ache, or a fever. Their teachers observe the pattern, but never raise it directly with the students - nor do the girls talk directly among themselves about the real reason they are missing school.

For many girls in Jordan, the silence around menstruation is damaging.

The anxiety of changing a sanitary pad in her school’s unisex bathroom, along with the fear that her clothes could become stained while she sits in class, means that she stays at home every month when she gets her period.

“It’s okay, but I feel sad a little when I miss school. I fall behind in class a bit.”

Zahra, 12

Zahra, a Syrian refugee, has been living with her mother and siblings in an Informal Tented Settlement near Amman, the capital city of Jordan for the last seven years.

Families living in such settlements are some of the most vulnerable in Jordan. The living conditions in these settlements are often inadequate, they sleep in makeshift tents with little protection from the elements, and adolescent girls face the greatest challenge because of limited access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.

To help overcome these challenges, UNICEF and its partners are supporting families in these hard-to-reach communities with water provision, water storage facilities, sanitation and toilets - as well as sharing important hygiene messages and distributing hygiene kits. Each kit contains soap, toothpaste, shampoo and sanitary pads. 

Women and girls sit in a circle inside a tent

Zahra is bravely breaking the silence during a focus group discussion with UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene experts. The lively discussion is shedding light on practices and norms around menstruation and menstrual hygiene, while dispelling myths and addressing taboos.

For many of the young girls gathered in the tent, these sessions are the first opportunity they’ve ever had to openly discuss their periods, ask questions, and realize that it’s a normal part of their adolescence and lives.

While the older women in the circle are comfortable discussing menstruation and menstrual hygiene amongst themselves, they share that there is little to no information given to girls before they hit puberty, and zero discussions are held with boys.

“This year is the first year I get my period. I woke up at night to use the toilet and I saw it. I was really scared. I went to my sister, and she said, ‘wear a pad, you’ll be okay, it’s normal, and go tell Mom."

Young girl at focus group discussion

 “We didn’t know much about it before, we never thought about these things, why it’s important to know,” says her mother Fatima.

During the session, one of the myths firmly dispelled is that girls should not shower when they are menstruating.

A woman walks towards a portable toilet

Zahra’s mother earns only a small income from working as a laborer on a nearby farms, but she always prioritizes the purchase of sanitary items for her daughter.

“For our girls’ health, we will always use our little money to buy pads,” says Mariam.

While knowledge about menstruation and hygiene practices is high in this community, the culture of silence around women’s reproductive health issues continues to disempower girls and negatively affect their education and health.

 “I don’t know if my school has pads for the girls. The teacher never talks about periods with us, and the girls don’t either,” says Zahra. “We all know why we miss school, but we don’t say anything.”

To compensate for the days she misses, she makes a big effort to complete the missed lessons at home on her own.

How to end the silence?

“If my teacher talks about it with us first, then I’d be comfortable to talk about it too. I can’t be the first,” exclaims Zahra.

UNICEF, generously supported by KOICA and the Government of Japan, is working with the Ministry of Education to support adolescent girls by providing better sanitation facilities and hygiene education in schools so that every girl is supported and empowered to learn and reach her full potential.