Women across the world are made to feel dirty or shameful for menstruating, and the language we use is partly to blame. Changing the way we talk may finally help shift the stigma, argues #HealthNotHygiene convenor Josie Parmee.

Women across the world are made to feel dirty or shameful for menstruating, and the language we use is partly to blame. Changing the way we talk may finally help shift the stigma, argues #HealthNotHygiene convenor Josie Parmee.

The stigma around menstruation is a huge global issue, and one that has always been notoriously tough to shake. This is partly due to the language we use when discussing it. 

I used to oversee strategic partnerships and campaigns for a girls’ rights organisation. While there, ‘Menstrual Hygiene Management’ was the official terminology used to refer to menstruating (the phrase is used by most of the development and health sectors).

I never felt comfortable using “hygiene” in this way. It felt ironic to be fighting for girls’ and women’s rights, while at the same time reducing this natural bodily process to an issue of “hygiene management.” The word implies something is dirty or needs to be cleaned and sanitised – it shouldn’t be used in conjunction with menstruating. 

It cropped up again earlier this year with the annual ‘World Menstrual Hygiene Day.’ The May 28th event, initiated by German NGO WASH United back in 2017, is supposed to draw attention to the lack of access many women have to menstrual products. Instead, it sounds more like a celebration of women keeping themselves clean.

Access to products that help girls and women manage their periods is a huge issue, caused by poverty and inequality. But what’s at play here isn’t just a resource issue: it’s the harmful beliefs that surround menstruation. Women across the world are made to feel dirty, shameful or untouchable for having periods. In Nepal, for example, some communities exile girls and women to purpose-built huts until they have finished menstruating, as they are believed to be impure during this period. (The custom has recently been outlawed, but the practice still happens).

Here in the UK, one in 10 girls have apparently been asked not to talk about their periods in front of their mother (12 per cent) or father (11 per cent). As well as that, almost three quarters (71 per cent) of girls admitted that they have felt embarrassed buying sanitary products.

This is why language is important. It helps form the beliefs and attitudes that surround menstruation. So rather than using words like “hygiene” and “sanitary” – which help perpetuate ideas of disease, dirt and disinfection – we should look to more progressive terms. One alternative is “health”: a word that has more positive connotations, lending itself to wellbeing, energy, fitness and strength.

Organisations are at least beginning to take this seriously. Brands which sell menstrual products – such as Bodyform, Always and Mooncup – have begun using more progressive messaging and imagery to tackle the social stigma around periods. In 2017, Bodyform were commended for being the first to stop using blue blood in their advertisements. Always are also currently running a campaign, #LikeAGirl, to challenge the stigma that girls face when they start puberty. The health and development sectors have no excuse but to follow suit and get up to speed.

It’s time for us to change the rhetoric, scrap the harmful language, and finally shake off the stigma. Let’s aim to change World Menstrual Hygiene Day to World Menstrual Health Day before the 28th of May 2020, and start the next decade with a fresh and modern approach.

Josie Parmee is the convenor of the #HealthNotHygiene campaign, and has started a petition and an Instagram account. Join the campaign to get the day changed for 2020. 

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