Working in international development, I often reflect on the similarities and differences between societies in across the world. As is often pointed out, we have so much in common across countries and continents.
We tend to focus on the good things we all share – a love for our families, a desire to work hard, a determination to protect our children – but there are also things we have in common that are less worthy of celebration. Taboos, stigma and discrimination against girls and young women are one such universal trait. And while, little by little, we're making progress towards equality, there's one taboo that has stubbornly remained. It's time we talked about periods.
Did you know that on any given day around 800 million women and girls are menstruating? It's a natural function of a woman's reproductive system that happens everything single month, and no, it's not exactly pretty. It's messy and painful; it can cause you to feel irritable and can disrupt your day, but the one thing it is not, and should not be, is cause for embarrassment.
But globally, the stigma surrounding periods is causing real harm. Girls growing up all over the world face discrimination for something they have no control over and something that defines them as a woman.
In Nepal, women can be confined to animal sheds during their periods to keep 'impurity' out of the home. In India, girls are told they aren't allowed to leave home during their period and so miss out on school, and in Burundi, east Africa, myths around menstruation mean girls have to comply with beliefs such as the fear that bathing near shared utensils during menstruation can cause family members to die.
Yes, these are extreme examples, but they serve to highlight an everyday reality in which taboo and discrimination is something that girls worldwide have to live with. Periods are just one manifestation of a set of attitudes towards women and girls that are outdated and unjust. These same attitudes are behind practices including early marriage, denying a girl the chance to go to school, harassment in the street and inequality in the workplace.
And make no mistake: these attitudes exist here in the UK too. Ahead of International Day of the Girl this Wednesday, girls' rights charity Plan International UK spoke to 1,000 UK girls aged between 14 and 21 in the UK and found that nearly half (48 per cent) felt embarrassed by their period.
- 26% of girls in the UK didn't know what to do when they started their period
- 51% of girls in Ethiopia miss between one and four days of school a month because of their period
- Only 12% of girls and women in India have access to sanitary products
In the UK and globally, the lack of quality education around menstruation means that when girls do get their period, many don't have a clue what it is or what to do. We were shocked to discover that one in seven girls didn't know what was happening when they start menstruating and more than a quarter didn't know what to do. There has to be a serious failure somewhere for this to be the case.
One teenager we spoke to called Sukey, who is 19 and from London, said: "My education about periods was dreadful and the whole concept of menstruation was just like a myth that you heard about from people at school.
"I remember when I first started bleeding I thought it was because I hit myself too hard. I text my friend to ask her, 'Is this normal?".
In all of these cases, starting a conversation about periods would start to break down the stigma surrounding them. That's what Plan International is doing globally, including by talking to boys, making sure they understand the reality of what a period is – and isn't. We support girls with their menstrual health management, for instance by constructing period-friendly toilet facilities in communities with only basic sanitation.
Here in the UK, the conversation needs to start with our education system. The new Relationships and Sex Education curriculum which is currently under consultation and due to be rolled out in September 2019, is a great starting point. By incorporating lessons which teach girls and boys, together, about the physical, personal and social aspects of menstruation, it will help to bust taboos that are holding girls back. Boys we've spoken to often show a lack of knowledge, or approach the subject in jest, but they do have a willingness to learn more about periods and it's so important they do.
We won't be able to fix the problem if the focus is only on teaching and talking about periods with girls. By allowing both genders to learn together that periods are a natural bodily function which happens once a month, this will normalise the issue and slowly but surely the taboo will be busted.
Schools must also look again at policies which make managing a period at school a daunting challenge. Girls are not only dealing with the pain and discomfort that comes with periods, but the institutionalised stigma too; a girl might miss school because she's worried that if her period comes, she won't be allowed access to the toilet. The policies and procedures in place therefore must acknowledge and adjust to the way these girls are feeling.
But while the education system needs to play a huge role in educating girls and boys about menstruation, the learning must continue at home. Parents need the support to talk to their children about the topic and be as open as possible, so that girls and boys feel comfortable asking questions and talking about it.
We know the demand to break the stigma around periods is there. In May we launched a campaign to create a period emoji. More than 50,000 people voted for their favourite design. It started a conversation with women telling us that by having an emoji it would help them to talk about their periods more with other people.
And so my hope and belief is that like countless taboos before it, the silence and shame around periods will end. For girls' sake, in the UK and around the world, it's high time it did.
Tanya Barron is CEO of global childrens' charity Plan International UK