How girls – and boys! – are busting period myths in 5 countries around the world
In places where menstruation is taboo, a girl's first period can be an agonizing introduction to adolescence
I was afraid that I was sick or had a disease. I was afraid there was something wrong with me.
What happens when a girl gets her period depends largely on where she lives. For some, it is a day for celebration. But for girls who live in places where menstruation is taboo, it can be a agonizing introduction to adolescence.
These girls and boys around the world are shutting down period myths and misconceptions.
1. Afghanistan: Breaking taboos
No meat, no rice, no vegetables, no sour foods, no drinking cold water, no sitting on wet ground, and no washing.
These are some of the common myths surrounding menstruation in Afghanistan, where the topic is taboo and girls learn to see it as something negative, shameful or dirty. In some communities, “even women in the family don’t talk with the ones who have their period,” says 18-year-old Mahnaz. “They are not allowed to cook and they are ignored until the period is over.”
But increasingly, menstruation classes in schools are giving girls the courage to talk about their periods. The classes teach girls about menstruation cycles, personal hygiene, diet and anaemia, and how to use pads.
Girls like Mahnaz are getting involved and teaching their parents and neighbours about menstruation too: “I feel a responsibility to campaign for this. All girls need to know about it and families should not force girls [to have] negative thoughts anymore.”
2. Bangladesh: Getting your period in a refugee camp
Getting a period in a crowded refugee camp is not easy for teenage girls and women. Menstruation supplies are hard to come by, as are safe and private toilets to wash themselves and their menstrual cloths. In Bangladesh, girls in a Rohingya refugee camp are part of a Sanimart project, which teaches them how to make their own pads to sell in markets.
3. Ethiopia: School clubs dispel misconceptions
More than half of adolescent girls in Ethiopia don’t receive any education about menstruation before their first periods. One common misconception is that girls are no longer virgins when they begin menstruating. Some are punished by parents who blame them for having sex or being raped. These beliefs, in addition to teasing and bullying, perpetuate girls’ feelings of shame and isolation, sometimes even leading them to drop out of school.
But in a number of schools, Girls Clubs are dispelling these beliefs. The clubs are safe spaces for girls to get counselling and talk about menstruation with their peers.
And the best part is that they’re not limited to girls.
Boys are encouraged to join and learn about menstruation as well, which is already making an impact.
"My dad told me my sister got raped because she was bleeding and crying at the same time. My dad never went to school so he didn't know that girls start their periods that early,” says Alemayehu Belete, 17. “I explained it to him – and also to my little sister about menstruation and how she can use pads."
4. Ghana: Empowering girls through education
“It happened one morning in early August. I was sitting in class trying to concentrate on a lesson.” says Millicent, 13. “Finally, it was time to go home. Only one problem, my chair felt damp. I got up really slowly and noticed it had stained my dress and my chair – very badly...I was worried. Did I eat something bad? Did I do something bad? I ran home, changed before anyone saw me and explained to my mother that I had to catch up on some classwork. I was too scared to tell her.”
Millicent’s story was no different from most of the girls in her class – they had never heard of menstruation. But when their social studies teacher received some learning materials, menstrual hygiene became a regular part of the lessons.
With detailed information on recommended food to eat during their periods, how to manage cramps and alternatives to pads, girls now feel armed and empowered instead of confused and unsure. “I learned how to track my period. So when I came to school I was prepared and didn’t need to go home,” says Millicent.
5. Indonesia: Not just a girl’s issue
Like in many other countries, menstruation is a taboo topic in Indonesia. Many girls do not learn about it from their mothers or teachers, and find out it on the day of their first period. Bullying and shame are an issue here too. A recent U-report poll found that 11% of girls skip school during their periods because they are teased by boys.
People would stare at me if there was a stain on my clothes [...] People would be gossiping about me if it happened.
Recognizing how these knowledge gaps hurt both boys and girls, UNICEF developed a comic book about menstruation for both girls AND boys. On one side is a how-to guide for girls, telling them everything they need to know about their periods, including common misconceptions and how to use pads. On the other side, a guide for boys, teaches them about menstruation and how to support their female classmates.
In communities where they were used, the books changed attitudes dramatically. A survey of schoolchildren in Baundung found that after reading the comic, 95% of boys felt it was wrong to bully menstruating girls (up from 61%).
Menstrual health and hygiene is one of UNICEF's top priorities for adolescent girls. With partners, UNICEF brings critical menstrual health information, facilities and supplies to adolescent girls in low-resource and crisis-affected areas around the world. UNICEF also works with governments to ensure girl-friendly policies and services, including the WinS4Girls programme, which influenced national policies in 14 countries, reaching thousands of adolescents.
Compiled with contributions from Denise Shepherd-Johnson, Abdul Rahman Zaeem, Ruth Pappoe, Reza Hendrawan