My research with Irise International however, suggests girls’ experiences of menstrual taboos may be more similar across societies than we previously may have thought. Through interviews conducted with key informants in the field of menstrual health in the UK and Uganda, several key narratives relating to girl’s experiences of menstruation and taboos were found to be shared across these two countries, despite one being a higher-income country and one being a lower-income country.
For example, embarrassment and the intense need to keep your periods secret from others was mentioned time and time again in interviews from both countries. The constant worry of standing up and there being a stain on your clothing is a worry among girls in the UK and Uganda and likely further across the globe. Some quotes from key informants demonstrate the similarity in narratives;
“I remember I was at school and a male form tutor was teaching us about periods…we were all so embarrassed…” (UK key informant)
“the girls feel embarrassed, and especially if they have a male teacher in class. They feel so much embarrassment they will not participate.” (Ugandan key informant)
Lack of knowledge is again not simply an issue for girls in Uganda but girls in the UK too. Both Ugandan and UK girls struggle to gain adequate information from school, family, friends and even mothers; perpetuating taboos or passing down myths. This breakdown in communication may be due, for example, to the mothers themselves never receiving adequate information or the taboo dictating their embarrassment speaking to their children about periods.
“mum never let me wash my hair…and I’ve since asked her why? And she said oh I don’t know but that’s just what my mum told me” (UK key informant)
“we grow up listening to what the elders tell us, we think what they tell us is the truth so when they tell you a menstruating women is dirty you probably believe it… you don’t know if it is true or not because in the end, you don’t understand what the menstrual blood is” (Ugandan key informant)
Cases of women being unable to afford menstrual products or not having authority over the family budget to buy products is evident in both poor UK and poor Ugandan families. In both countries’ women have discussed totally inadequate (but also often ingenious) ways to soak up menstrual blood without the use of menstrual products. Slices of bread, cut mattresses, old cloth, leaves, grass, newspaper and dung are all items that poor women have used across the UK and Uganda.
“A woman…was literally down to her last 50p…[she] bought a 50p loaf of bread, gave the first half to her kids and the other half she used as sanitary towels. Literally folding up a slice of bread and that was her sanitary towel…that was in [the UK], last year” (UK key informant)
“people cut their bedsheets to make…a sanitary towel or like from a mattress…some people, when they are menstruating they make a pile of cow dung or sand and you can sit on from morning until night when the blood is coming but that is in some of the rural areas but in town most people use disposables” (Ugandan key informant)
My findings suggest that despite living in the UK or Uganda, girl’s feelings and reactions to menstruation are very similar and this is likely due to common taboos. Thinking holistically, as well as working together with our sisters across societies is essential for dismantling taboos and improving the lives of women and girls throughout the world.
*Important note/caveat: Within this blog I refer to ‘women and girls’, however I understand and fully acknowledge that not everyone who menstruates identifies as a woman and not all women menstruate (adapted from Epstein et al., 2017).