“It’s that time of the month.” “Red October.” “On the blob.” Many people would rather call menstruation anything than what it is. But in parts of the world, the stigma around menstruation goes far beyond euphemisms. For some girls, menstruating means being hidden away in cattle sheds or banned from their houses; others struggle to afford tampons and pads and are forced to make do with rags. Some women have even been arrested or interrogated for their peaceful activities to change this stigma.
Yet things are starting to change.
In Kazakhstan, we’re still unable to call menstruation what it is. Instead, people use euphemisms such as “Red Aunty,” “Red October” or “Red Army.” My mom is a pediatrician, and when I had my first period, she threw me a piece of cloth without explaining what it was for or how to use it. At school, if a girl’s period leaks onto her clothes, everyone laughs and her teacher will send her home. Some people bury their bloody panties outside, while others use contaminated rags, causing reproductive damage.
Something needs to be done. That’s why I joined a group of peaceful protesters in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to participate in a photo shoot aimed at tackling the taboos around menstruation. We took hand-drawn posters with slogans and pictures. After the demonstration, I went to a cafe. When I came out, seven policemen were waiting for me. They ordered me to go to the station and said if I didn’t, they’d use physical force.
I was charged with minor hooliganism. I was interrogated by a judge, and she questioned me endlessly about the poster I was holding. She also asked questions like “Are you married? Do you have any children? Are you pregnant?”
I told her I was an open lesbian and to question me about a partner, not a husband. It was an interesting experience, albeit a stressful and scary one, but when I see people facing injustice, I have to act.
In Nepal, girls who are menstruating can be hidden away from the sun and from men for up to 15 days. Some girls are even exiled to cattle sheds. It’s a tradition known as Chhaupadi.
I was 11 when I had my first period. A grand event was taking place at home, but I wasn’t allowed to go because I was menstruating. Instead, I was hidden away in a dark room at a relative’s house, far from my home. I was really looking forward to the event and I cried until my eyes were swollen.
I was hidden away for five days. After I came out, I wasn’t allowed to touch the male members of my family for 11 days or go into the kitchen for 19 days. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my friends where I had been — I was the first person in my class to get my period and I was so shy.
One day, a group of young women came to my school to talk to us about menstruation. That was the day everything changed. They taught us so many things and empowered us with knowledge to challenge the traditions. At first, my family was angry. I had to make them understand that we have this tradition because menstruation used to be much more difficult to manage. Now we have pads, and it’s much cleaner. It was a difficult process, but there are no longer any restrictions surrounding menstruation in my family.
I am part of Amnesty International’s student group at Kathmandu University, and I am changing the way people think about menstruation in the broader sense. We’re making videos, hosting rallies and running community programs in rural areas for boys and girls. When we hear kids talking about these issues openly, it’s a proud moment for us.
In Nepal, we need to start changing mindsets about the superstitions surrounding menstruation — and I think we’re doing a great job so far.
Britain is more progressive than many other countries, but growing up, I always felt shame about my period. I think this is because periods weren’t talked about at school and, when they were, they were referred to with a plethora of euphemisms — “that time of the month” was mine. It also wasn’t something you’d discuss with men, which adds to the idea that menstruation is a big shameful secret. At school, in jobs even, I would hide a pad up my sleeve or make sure I was wearing pockets on period days.
I use illustration to start conversations about and normalize periods. At the beginning of my career, I started creating satirical pieces about the tampon tax after attending the #FreePeriods protest. I volunteer my drawing skills to Bloody Good Period, as their work to ensure asylum seekers and homeless people have access to period products is something I completely believe in.
I was also part of Freda’s campaign to get hotels, schools, airlines and offices to provide free period products. In my personal life, I am also talking about my period more. I no longer use euphemisms, and call pads and tampons “period products” rather than “sanitary products,” which implies that periods are unclean.
This year, the British government announced it would provide free period products in secondary schools and colleges in England from the next school year. This wasn’t my doing, but I have been part of this movement behind all the campaigning for change. There is still so much to be done to break menstrual taboos and injustices, but little by little as we keep making noise, we’re seeing change.