Drop the euphemisms, challenge the stigma and end the taboos around periods

4 min read
WASH Club members, Uganda
Image: WaterAid/Eliza Powell

WaterAid is encouraging people around the world, whatever their gender or age, to challenge stigma around periods by dropping euphemisms and embracing honest language around menstruation.

In many parts of the world, a squeamishness around talking about menstrual periods holds women and girls back from being able to ask for the facilities and support they need – including decent, private toilets with water and soap available - to deal with their menstruation with dignity and comfort.

Euphemisms for periods are common in many cultures and are part of the secrecy and shame surrounding the natural bodily function that is a monthly occurrence for around half the world’s population during their lifetime.

In Nepal, ‘Padkinu’ – ‘you exploded’, or ‘Maharani’ – ‘you are now Queen’, are ways of avoiding saying the words period or menstruation. In Sweden people talk about ‘lingonveckan’ – ’the lingonberry week’, and following the popularity of Game of Thrones,’Red Wedding’ has taken on a new meaning. In Timor-Leste, the term ’bread’ is used for sanitary pads, while ’Grandmother Maria’ and ’See the moon’ are used for periods. In Papua New Guinea, phrases such as ’I’m on fire’ and ’Inside the house’ are used.

Around a quarter of the world’s female population, are of reproductive age; most of them will menstruate every month. Girls often turn to their mothers and teachers for support about periods, but they may reinforce taboos and restrictions if they lack the facts themselves, or might lack the confidence and skills to talk about it openly. It’s important to break this cycle with open conversations to help end the stigmas associated with menstruation.

To encourage people to talk more openly about periods, WaterAid has released a short film entitled ’Peaky Bleeders’, a spoof on the British crime drama ’Peaky Blinders’. The film depicts the Period Gang, armed with a tampon bazooka, tampon bullet belt, and tampon nunchucks, trying to rid the town of the notorious period euphemisms, featuring the painters, Arsenal playing at home, Ketchup, a shark and other period idioms from around the world.

WaterAid has also launched a quiz for people to guess the period euphemisms from around the world, and a gallery of menstrual hygiene illustrations by Australian artist and illustrator Aileen Ng, whose work often explores youth advocacy, gender and politics.

Image: Aileen Ng/ WaterAid Australia

Chelsea Huggett, WaterAid Australia’s Technical Lead - Equality and Inclusion, said:

While some of the euphemisms used for periods around the world are quite funny, the more people use them instead of speaking openly about menstruation, the more we are saying that this natural bodily function is shameful and should be hidden.

We need to break the taboo around periods because it is holding girls and women back. If she is too embarrassed to ask how to get sanitary products or does not have a decent, private toilet, then it becomes harder for her to go to school and concentrate, or to go to work.

So WaterAid challenges everyone – from brothers and fathers, sisters and mothers, teachers, doctors, government officials to prime ministers – to bring periods out in the open.  We want to make sure that every woman and girl feels confident and unashamed, and has the sanitary products and toilets they need to live every week of every month in comfort.

Next week, Huggett and other WaterAid delegates will visit Vancouver for Women Deliver, the largest global event on gender equality. WaterAid Canada and partners will be highlighting the ways in which lack of access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene compromise the ability of women and girls to manage their menstrual periods privately and hygienically.

Huggett leads WaterAid's work in menstrual hygiene with a particular focus on Timor-Leste and PNG. This work is funded by the Australian government through the ANCP Gender Action Platform and is implemented through Marie Stopes International.

WaterAid will be calling on governments to take action to tackle gender inequality and improve menstrual health and will publish a new report: ‘A shared agenda: Exploring the links between water, sanitation, hygiene and sexual and reproductive health and rights in sustainable development’. The paper draws attention to how this lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities undermines the already disproportionate challenges faced by women and girls to realise their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Menstrual Hygiene Day was started by WASH United in 2014 to build awareness of the fundamental role that good menstrual hygiene management plays in helping women and girls reach their full potential.

For more information, please contact Kevin Hawkins, Communications Manager, [email protected] or +61 3 9001 8262