For most women in rich countries, getting their period doesn’t amount to much more than a minor inconvenience. A few hours of cramps. Mood swings. Hiding a tampon up the sleeve on the way to the office bathroom. Yet for millions across the world, menstruation still remains synonymous with shame, hardship and missing out on life.
A new report from UNICEF and the World Health Organization has revealed that significant proportions of women in many developing countries are still struggling to safely manage their periods, lacking access to menstrual products, water and private places to wash and change.
Published on Thursday, the report is one of the first to collect and analyze data on menstrual health across a number of countries. The results make for disturbing reading.
The analysis shows that despite global efforts to provide universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene, menstruation remains a taboo in many places around the world.
The researchers found that around one in five girls and women in Ethiopia, Samoa and Laos, and one in seven in Niger and Burkina Faso, used no suitable menstrual products during their periods, putting them at risk of infection and other health problems.
Half of girls and women in Niger said they had no private place to change and wash during their periods.
In five other countries that were included in the survey – Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Laos, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia – at least one in five women living in rural areas didn’t have access to a private place.
While two-thirds in Ethiopia said they had a private place to wash and change, only 38% and 40% said it was clean and safe, respectively.
Missing out on school, work, life
For millions of other girls and women, the only safe and private place to deal with their periods is at home, which leads to them missing out on life.
More than half of women in Bangladesh and more than two-thirds in Nepal said they are not participating in everyday activities while menstruating. In Chad and the Central African Republic, one in three said they were missing out.
Sometimes, local customs prevent women from taking part in life. In Nepal, half of the women from the poorest communities said they eat in a separate place during their periods, with one in seven forced to stay in a mud huts or cowsheds while menstruating.
The practice of banishing menstruating women to huts away from their communities is known as chaupadi. It has been illegal in Nepal since 2005, but according to the report, it is still practiced in many mostly rural and poor communities.
But the experience of being isolated and excluded during menstruation isn’t limited to the poorest. In the survey, 30% of women from Nepal’s richest communities said they ate in separate places. And nearly all women surveyed in the country reported staying away from religious activities during their periods.
While women are forbidden or choose not to participate in social activities in some countries, in others, a lack of resources and access to safe places to change is holding women back.
Younger girls and women are more likely to miss out on activities, the report said. The survey showed that 15% of girls in Burkina Faso, 20% in Ivory Coast and 23% in Nigeria missed school in the past 12 months because of their period.