Research carried out by Plan International found that 55% of Irish girls are embarrassed by their period and 61% have missed school due to their period.
The stigma around menstruation is still largely normalised, in many countries it is normal for girls to be kept away from others while menstruating, in Ireland, it leads to massive issues around period poverty.
Her spoke to two Irish women from Plan International‘s youth advisory plan to hear about how period stigma plays a big role in these issues.
From the 1,100 girls that Plan surveyed they found on top of embarrassment, 50% struggled to afford period products and 50% also didn’t find school useful for information about their period.
So, where does this stigma come from, and why are so many people still embarrassed about a natural bodily function that happens every month?
“It is rooted in gender inequality and the patriarchal structures of our society, even the fact that we’re not educated about women’s bodies and we don’t understand how they work that is a sexist thing,” says Mairéad Butler, a Trinity College student from the youth advisory panel.
“When someone first gets their period you’re told to hide your pad or your tampon up your sleeve.”
The shame around periods is something that we are made to feel as soon as they arrive. It is not something to be spoken of or shared.
Amarachukwu Onyegiri, a recent master’s graduate from UCD, highlights how this stigma is often exasperated in certain communities.
“The stigma would be felt and all though most people would feel it, it is felt more prominently by marginalised communities,” she says.
Stigma not only stops periods being spoken about, but it also means those who need information often don’t have it – or the products they need to get by.
“When people don’t have that information, they’re not able to take care of themselves properly,” says Amarachukwu. “That can have health implications like using inappropriate period products, maybe using rags and paper. That stigma can have a physical effect as well as a mental effect.”
Mairéad says that stigma can often lead girls and people who menstruate to miss out on important aspects of their lives.
“A lot of it is barriers to becoming fully involved in things,” she says, “whether that’s in school where a girl is in pain and she doesn’t know how to manage that or can’t afford period products. So many people who menstruate won’t go to school or work and they miss out on things.
“[It can also] lead to people dismissing issues or saying ‘this is fine’ when it isn’t, because we haven’t been educated to understand what a healthy period looks like.”
There is quite a way to go in removing the stigma around periods, but for both Mairéad and Amarachukwu, education is the first step.
“We need to flip the narrative and the only way to flip the narrative is through comprehensive education,” Amarachukwu says.
“There should be properly integrated classes where people look at the aspects and effects of periods from the biological, the physical, and the emotional… every single thing we should be made aware of.”
Awareness and normalisation are also key. “By having these conversations and recognising that, ‘yes there are people who menstruate and have periods every single month,'” says Mairéad.
“These things aren’t just hidden away, they aren’t taboos. That conversation can start in a classroom, but it also has to start in wider society.”