The beginning of a new period

3 min read
Esther, 16, WASH Club member (L) teaches Rosemary, 12 (R) how to make sanitary pads at St Mary's School, Namalu, Karamoja Region, Uganda, July 2017
Image: WaterAid/ Eliza Powell

You may not have noticed it, but earlier this year your phone gained a new emoji. After years of campaigning from not-for-profit groups, the period emoji – represented by a red blood drop - was finally added to the Unicode language.

Menstrual periods also took centre stage on Oscars night with Period. End of Sentence. winning Best Documentary Short.

These are the latest indicators that we are finally open to talking about menstrual periods, a common part of life for almost half the population yet a topic that has been a taboo for so long.

Progress, however, has been slower in Papua New Guinea, where the social taboos associated with menstrual periods are mixed with long-standing traditional beliefs.

“Managing periods can be challenging. For example, where girls dispose of their pads has to be really secretive so that no one can see the blood,” WaterAid Australia’s Technical Lead in Equality and Rights Chelsea Huggett explains. “There are taboos around what food you can eat, taboos around touching water and preparing food for others.”

“The whole idea is that if a person is menstruating they are stigmatised and are expected to keep themselves clean and not get too close to other family members,” Huggett says. “Women and girls report that they never ever want people to know that they’re menstruating. There’s this whole thing of feeling dirty so really keeping yourself away from others. This makes it hard to go to work, or school.”

These ideas make it difficult for women and girls to manage their periods effectively, making it necessary for WaterAid to take novel approaches to addressing the problem. One such approach includes throwing around a netball.

As part of its ‘Keeping Girls in School through Improved Reproductive and Menstrual Health’ project with Marie Stopes International, funded by the Australian government’s ‘Gender Action Platform’ program, WaterAid is encouraging primary school teachers to organise games for both girls and boys that focus on myth-busting. This includes girls and boys participating in role play activities and playing a myth-busting game while throwing netballs between them. This is part of a broader education piece that gives girls information on how and why they menstruate and how they can keep track of it.

WaterAid’s ultimate goal is to improve school curriculum, which currently only skims over menstruation in its discussions of puberty. In a sign of progress, the Papua New Guinea Minister of Education Curriculum Development Officer has participated in WaterAid’s teacher training sessions and is keen for WaterAid to replicate this work in high schools.

“This menstrual hygiene management work in primary schools is paving the way for either broader family planning and sexual reproductive health or for a high school model,” Huggett explains.

This project not only seeks to help school-aged girls feel more comfortable about managing menstruation, but also helps girls to get information about family planning services. WaterAid is also helping to make toilet facilities more period-friendly, such as adding bins and incinerators, and supporting local female-run businesses manufacture products such as reusable pads.

While there is still work to do in Papua New Guinea, there is growing global momentum behind this issue with more countries adopting progressive policies around menstrual periods. In Nepal, the government criminalised Chhaupadi, a cultural practice that saw women and girls banished to a hut during their periods. And in both India and Australia, sanitary napkins and tampons respectively were exempted from the nation’s Goods and Services Tax.

This project is supported by the Australian Government through the PNGAusPartnership.