28.05.2024 Saara Manelius

Opponents of Period Shame

Reading time 6 min

Period shame complicates the daily lives of people living with menstruation both in the global South and in the North. At its worst, shame can lead to serious health problems going untreated.

Zuhur Abdi Jama joins the call from Burao, Somaliland. She is a long-time expert in combating violence against women at International Solidarity Foundation (ISF), holding degrees in both project management and law. Today, however, the focus is on period shame – a phenomenon that unites the global south and north.

Abdi Jama explains that in Somaliland, menstruation is viewed with shame. It is a taboo subject. “Women can only discuss it with very close friends,” she notes. “Many don’t even talk about it with their spouses.”

There is a significant difference between urban and rural areas: in the city, disposable menstrual pads are available in stores, but in rural areas, women make their own hygiene products, often from old clothes. Even city women hide the fact that they are buying menstrual products. “Women quickly slip the package out of sight, even while still between the store shelves.”

According to Abdi Jama, progress has been swift: at the beginning of the 2000s, menstrual products were not available for purchase even in cities. Still, for most Somali women, these products are too expensive. “A very large number of women cannot afford products specifically designed for menstruation.”

Zuhur Abdi Jama is a gender equality expert for ISF in Somaliland

The Many Shades of Menstrual Shame

In Finland, midwife and sexual health advisor Rosa Wave adds her perspective to the discussion. She works at the women’s health clinic of Helsinki University Hospital, dealing with menstrual issues, dyspareunia, and surgeries related to the opening of female genital mutilation.

“Menstruation is as normal a part of our bodies as anything,” Wave states. “It’s sad that people feel shame about something so normal.”

In Finland, according to a recent survey, period shame is particularly pronounced among young people. Wave sees the responsibility of healthcare professionals as crucial in bringing menstruation into the conversation and normalizing the topic. “These are normal matters that should be discussed in a neutral tone.”

Wave’s remedy for period shame also involves sharing positive experiences about sexual health topics. “To those suffering from period shame, I want to say that someone else has probably experienced the same thing as you. Someone else’s pants have also gotten stained during a meeting. These are completely ordinary things.”

Lack of Information Increases Shame – and Fear

Wave emphasizes the importance of positive, fact-based sexual education for all genders. Sexual education should provide enough accurate information. “With this knowledge, people can protect themselves and take better care of themselves.” According to Wave, silence and scare tactics lead people to seek information from the wrong places – ending up with information that is simply not true.

“Sexual education doesn’t teach anyone to have sex,” Wave firmly states. “It’s about respect for one’s own body and boundaries. A person who has received quality and sufficient sexual education can protect themselves with that knowledge.”

In Somaliland schools, sexual education is not available. “A typical source of information about menstruation is an older sister,” says Abdi Jama. Mothers usually don’t tell their daughters about menstruation, so many girls are very frightened when they get their first period. Due to the taboo, they haven’t seen anything related to menstruation around them, as their mothers and other close ones hide their own menstruation.

“Besides shame, sheer fear can prevent them from going to school: fear of serious illness, death, or simply not knowing when the next period will come.”

However, change is coming – in the form of educated mothers. “They are providing their daughters with information about menstruation and body functions.”

Rosa Wave works as a midwife and sexual health counselor at the Women’s Clinic of Helsinki University Hospital (HUS) in Helsinki.

Female Genital Mutilation Affects Menstruation

Genital mutilation has far-reaching impacts on a woman’s life, including her menstruation. Severe menstrual pain is common, as is the accumulation of menstrual blood.

Abdi Jama reports that before marriage, Somali women are in a very vulnerable position: due to the taboo, it is difficult for them to access sexual and reproductive health care. Mutilation increases the risk of gynecological infections, but often infections in young women go untreated. Untreated infections, in turn, can have long-term impacts, such as on fertility.

“After marriage, it is easier for women to visit doctors and midwives,” says Abdi Jama. “Then, sexual health issues are more acceptable as they are related to starting a family.”

Midwife Rosa Wave has also encountered women in her work who have had problems with menstruation due to mutilation. Severe menstrual pain is a typical reason for seeking consultation. “Painful menstruation can be alleviated, for example, by a defibulation surgery and various medications,” Wave explains.

“An especially important aspect is also increasing awareness: for many, it is comforting to know, first and foremost, that they can be helped in these matters.” Wave hopes that knowledge about the possibilities of help will spread as widely as possible.

“It’s important for people to seek care.”

Reusable Pads in Somaliland

ISF is starting the production of reusable pads in the Burao area. “This is an important step from the perspective of menstrual hygiene and breaking the menstrual taboo,” says Abdi Jama, who is responsible for the planning of the project.

The production of reusable pads aims to address a significant challenge: currently, the menstrual taboo and the resulting lack of menstrual protection restrict women’s lives and opportunities, whereas functional menstrual products are a crucial part of a functional everyday life. “I anticipate that marketing the products will be a challenge,” Abdi Jama notes. “How can women talk about the existence of these products under a strict taboo?”

Women trained as seamstresses are also being educated more broadly on reproductive health issues. “While marketing reusable pads and instructing on their use, they will also talk about health.”

“It’s really interesting to see what kind of reception the products will get,” Abdi Jama continues. “There is a huge need for them in Burao.”

World Menstrual Day is celebrated on May 28th.

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