Men, We Need to Talk About Menstruation...
by Andrew Arnold
There is an old adage that goes, “Happy Wife, Happy Life”. Most men, married or not, can attest to the truth in it. But there’s more to that phrase than meets the eye. In fact, it took a trip to Kenya, participating in the most unlikely of public health campaigns, to convince me of the profound wisdom behind those words.
My epiphany moment, if you want to call it that, occurred during the first week of the project. It was the start of the Kenyan dry season. The heat of the equatorial sun had begun to turn everything brown, and the parched roads coughed up dust clouds as our taxi sped towards Kamariny Primary school. This small school of about 500 children and a dozen teachers had agreed to participate in our project, and I was eager to visit the grounds. Kamariny is situated 7,000ft up, overlooking the Great Rift Valley escarpment. The view was something to behold as our car parked inside the compound. Just as the engine turned off, hundreds of school children dressed in bright blue sweaters came pouring out of their poorly constructed classrooms. The scene was so picturesque; you’d be forgiven for forgetting that most of these kids come from families living off less than $2 per day. Like most of rural Kenya, this area struggles with poverty, and those struggles were the reason for our visit that day.
After paying the driver, our team scrambled out to greet the students. Leading the way was my girlfriend, Alyssa O’Connor, the project manager and point woman over the next three months. Following her were Golda and Miriam from the Golden Girls Foundation, two exceptional individuals that had driven all the way from Lake Victoria to help distribute a curious product called a Ruby Cup (more on that to come). I was bringing up the rear, toting the camera bags and video equipment we would use to capture the next three hours.
As I approached the large gathering of kids encircling Alyssa and the Golden Girls, a wave of laughter swept over the group. Even the ladies couldn’t help but giggle. Blushing, I knew the joke was on me. Ruby Cup, our project’s partner, had sent tee-shirts to be worn at the distribution. Unfortunately for me, these bright red shirts only came in women’s cuts. Not wanting to be the odd man out (literally), I decided to sport the shirt to the school. But obviously, I didn’t wear it as well as the ladies.
It was a harmless moment. But the funny thing is that tight fitting, wide neck and wider-hipped shirt, symbolized many of my feelings about this project. Up until this point I’ve been a little coy about describing what exactly this public health campaign was all about. Titled “Ruby in the Rift”, this project is designed as a Menstrual Health Management campaign. It locates impoverished, rural schools throughout the western reaches of Kenya and organizes a series of workshops for the schoolgirls. These workshops help teach them about menstruation, and also provides guidance and products to help their transition into womanhood. The most important of these products are the Ruby Cups, a silicone menstrual cup that is reusable, and with regular cleaning, can last for over a decade.
Now, if you’re a guy reading that last paragraph, you probably felt the same way I did when I wore that red shirt in public. Those puberty videos we all were forced to sit through in health class were bad enough, but openly talking about “menstruation”? Let’s just say it’s not a word that easily rolls off the tongue among men. If anything, it’s a topic we tend to ignore or leave unspoken. Just like that tee-shirt, menstruation used to make me feel awkward, uncomfortable, and definitely out of my element. But after learning more about this issue, my perception has fundamentally changed. Sorry men, but we need to talk about menstruation.
Menstruation is no secret. How could it be when half the population deals with it on a monthly basis at some point in their lives? But most men, myself included, are unaware of its impact on society.
International Agencies like the World Bank and the United Nations have found a link between school drop-out and the onset of menstruation. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, menstruation causes girls to miss 10% of their classes. This level absenteeism leads to a vicious cycle, one the causes young girls to fall behind in school and eventually drop out. Worse, as they get older and are faced with fewer options, they are increasingly likely to take part in destructive behaviors. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored research that found ¼ of girls growing up in rural parts of Kenya engage in transactional sex just to pay for sanitary pads.
These findings are disturbing, but you may be wondering how it impacts society. Well, to quote former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan,
His powerful words are not just an opinion, they are backed up by the data. In every instance where nations make a concerted effort to improve women’s education; economic productivity, lower infant mortality, and improved population health result. The threat that menstruation poses to development is serious, so much so that the UN included Menstrual Hygiene Management as part of its global strategy for achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
But the analysis can’t stop there. “Ruby in the Rift” is an incredible program, but it’s efforts are in vain if you don’t discuss the underlying problem with menstruation. Pick up any sociology textbook, or better yet, ask any women, and you’ll soon learn that menstruation is not just a biological experience, it’s socially constructed. In other words, society and culture affects how women experience their period. Sadly, most cultures, even in the west, treat menstruation as if its taboo.
A growing body of evidence shows that this hush-hush attitude causes menstruation to become a stigmatized event. It’s something that everyone’s aware of, but it remains hidden and kept secret. For young girls going through puberty, this pressure to keep a period secret creates a culture of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of leakage, fear of being caught. Ultimately, a fear of being stigmatized.
This may sound abstract, but the consequences of this stigma are concrete. In Sub-Saharan Africa, young girls skip school because they are afraid to be seen on their period. Lack of sanitary products or private bathrooms only compound that anxiety. The same phenomenon has been found in India and Nepal. As schooling for girls increasingly becomes compulsory around the world, (a very good thing!) lack of puberty guidance and products cause the school itself to become a stigmatization zone. It makes sense why a girl without the luxury of a private bathroom, running water, or even sanitary pads, would want to stay home.
But the stigma of menstruation is not only felt in developing countries. Girls growing up in western countries, the US even, claim that one of the most stressful events in school is being on their period. Although most young girls in the west benefit from ready access to sanitary materials, puberty education, and modern bathroom facilities, the stigma still exists.
I studied enough Anthropology to know that cultural stigmas stem from the members of a society. And sorry fellas, but being that we represent 50% of society, we by default are responsible for 50% of this stigma (I’m sure some women would say it is higher). But I’m not suggesting that we go around and start apologizing to the women in our lives (never a bad idea though). Acting guilty does nothing to stop the root of the problem. Neither am I suggesting to only establish policies and programs that donate pads and money to MHM initiatives (although any donations to “Ruby in the Rift” are greatly appreciated!). Again, these only target symptoms, not the cause.
Instead, men need to understand that their own misgivings about menstruation, their own awkwardness regarding the topic and distaste towards discussing it, in large part creates this destructive culture that causes so much pain in girls’ lives. Simply put gentlemen, we need to start talking about menstruation. We need to put aside our own insecurities and start empowering girls by going outside our comfort zones. We need to include ourselves in the conversation about menstruation. It can no longer be viewed as a girls-only-issue, rather, it must be approached as a community issue.
When that happens, the results are encouraging. In Kenya, for example, when the male elders of the village are included in the menstrual health discussions, the success rate of MHM programs dramatically increases. I believe that if more men can take the initiative, menstrual taboos will finally begin to fall.
If you’re wondering what that would look like, look no further than my Ruby Cup shirt. Sure, I felt goofy and even got laughed at embracing something that was meant for women. But the girls loved it (especially my girlfriend) and that’s really what lies at the heart of this issue. It’s not just that helping women can statistically make the world a better place. For most guys, the impact of these actions reaches a personal level. “Happy wife, happy life” right? Well, if every man did what he could to make menstrual taboos a thing of the past, I can promise that men everywhere will enjoy a better future. Who knows, we may not even have to dread “that time of the month” anymore.