Taboos around menstruation abound, despite it being a natural bodily function experienced by half the population. Luckily, activists – not to mention companies and governments – are making bold strides to effect change
Periods are as normal as breathing. And yet, right now, 500 million women and girls around the world don’t have access to the information and products that they need to manage their periods safely, hygienically and without shame. This can affect their health as well as stopping them from going to school or work. In the EU alone, the negative economic impact equates to $100bn (£87bn) each year, according to the consultancy firm Kearney.
Thankfully, activists, businesses and political leaders are pushing for change, and their work is producing results.
Scotland recently became the first country in the world to make period products free for all and Spain has approved a draft bill guaranteeing paid menstrual leave. Elsewhere, politicians are using the issue to garner votes; a candidate campaigning for re-election in Australia has pledged free sanitary products for all should his party win.
It’s a movement that’s being helped by purpose-driven businesses, which are putting their shoulders to the wheel to change public discourse.
“We want to ensure girls and women obtain the right information and knowledge about menstrual health, as well as access to quality period products,” explains Dunja Kokotović, global brand manager for Intimina, a Swedish company that produces the Ziggy Cup 2 – a reusable menstrual disk with twice the capacity of an average menstrual cup.
The brand has taken a uniquely irreverent approach to busting taboos. For example, have you considered ‘period’ coloured paint for your living room walls? Intimina teamed up with the Pantone Color Institute to create the shade of red to represent and normalise menstruation. They’ve also made Period Crunch, a uterus-shaped breakfast cereal with a raspberry flavour, which is designed to break the silence about periods in our homes. What’s more, the company has filmed a documentary, The Menstrual Gap, uncovering the difficulties faced by girls in Kibera, Kenya’s biggest slum, when menstruating. And its Wonder Girls Guide Book helps tweens to understand the physical and emotional changes they are going through.
Most courageously however, are the young feminist activists who are leading the way on the ground to challenge stigmas, gender inequality and period poverty. Here we profile six who are changing the debate and empowering women and girls.
Amika George, UK
Amika George was only 17 when she began her Free Period campaign asking the government to provide free period products in schools. She’d read an article on the BBC that revealed girls were missing up to a week of school every month because of their periods. After two and a half years, a demonstration in Parliament Square, and a legal challenge urging the UK government to comply with its obligations to ensure equal access to education, the government made a commitment to provide free sanitary products in all British schools, colleges and hospitals. George has since won plaudits from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Teen Vogue. She became the youngest person to receive an MBE, and has written a book, Make it Happen, about how to get involved in politics from the grassroots.
Janet Mbugua, Kenya
Period poverty is so prevalent in Kenya that an estimated 65 per cent of women and girls are unable to afford period products, and almost half are forced to use alternatives such as rags, pieces of mattress, and cotton wool. Janet Mbugua is a former news anchor, the founder of the Inua Dada Foundation and author of My First Time, which has since evolved into a popular podcast. By sharing stories about menstruation, she wants to remove the stigma and shame around periods in Kenya, bust prevailing myths and misconceptions, and improve access to period products by holding policymakers accountable.
Evelina Llewellyn, Lebanon
When Lebanon’s economy began to crash in 2019, the price of sanitary products skyrocketed. Menstrual pads, the vast majority of which are imported, rose in cost by almost 500 per cent. To raise awareness of reusable, eco-friendly menstrual products such as period pants, reusable pads and menstrual cups, British-French film director Evelina Llewellyn created a two-month period poverty festival called Jeyetna, which kicked off in July 2021. A white truck, which was adorned with images of blood-stained underwear hanging off laundry lines, drove across the country, distributing period products. At each of the 25 stops, there was also a screening of Llewellyn’s documentary, which explored the different ways period poverty impacts Lebanese women.
Nadya Okamoto, US
Nadya Okamoto was just 16 and a high school student in Portland, Oregon when she co-founded PERIOD. Since then, it’s grown into an organisation with hundreds of volunteers around the world, distributing millions of menstrual products to people in need, for free. In 2018, while studying at Harvard, she wrote Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement, where she champions the need to stop silencing those who bleed. Okamoto is similarly open on TikTok, posting videos to her four-million-strong audience showing a tampon string sticking out of her underwear, or of herself sitting on the toilet while changing a pad.
Aditi Gupta, India
An estimated 71 per cent of girls in India don’t know what menstruation is until they get their first period, and one in five subsequently drop out of school. In a TED Talk, which has been watched more than 1.8m times, Gupta talks about her own experience of using rags that she had to wash, reuse and hide while menstruating. The experience inspired her to start Menstrupedia, a social enterprise that uses storytelling and comic books to educate girls about periods in an informative but fun way. More than 11,000 schools in India now use the comic books, which are available in 20 languages and 23 countries. Gupta’s goal is to create a future where menstruation is not shameful but a welcome change.
Candice Chirwa, South Africa
Known as the ‘minister of menstruation’, Candica Chirwa is an activist and academic from South Africa who works to bring menstrual and sex education to young women and men. She runs workshops in schools with her non-profit organisation Qrate, which aims to enhance critical thinking about social issues in young people. She’s also the author of Flow: The Book About Menstruation. In an interview with Global Citizen about her work, she says the key to ending period poverty is conversation. “The one thing we can do is talk openly about our periods … not to surround or associate periods with secrecy or embarrassment but to actually embrace it as a normal biological function. Let’s call out any form of period stigma we come across and seek to educate and empower people about periods in a positive way.”
Main image: Candice Chirwa. Credit: Cedric Nzaka/Levergy