Sofia Helin: It’s time to break the silence on periods

4 min read
Image: WaterAid/ JasonTanner

When filming the first series of The Bridge, we were doing an office scene where my character was in a meeting with colleagues, and I improvised by blurting out ‘I’m on my period’. While this was nothing unusual for Saga Noren, who’s known for her directness and deviation from social norms, this is hardly something we feel is acceptable in normal everyday life. But I think this needs to change.

Periods are a natural process that half the world’s population experience; they are a sign of life. So why is the subject cloaked in secrecy and shame?

I’m sure we’ve all faced the embarrassment of awkward period dramas, like being caught without a sanitary pad in a time of need. When that happens, should we feel ashamed to ask a stranger to help us out?

The fact that people don’t talk about their periods has a huge impact on women and girls around the world.

One in three girls in South Asia miss school during their period

One in three women have no access to a decent toilet, which is especially challenging during their period. If there's no decent toilet at school, girls are more likely to miss classes or drop out altogether once they start their periods.

According to recent research by WaterAid and Unicef, one in three girls in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan miss school days every month during their periods. Through my work with WaterAid I've visited Cambodia, meeting people from a village who have been given new flat-pack toilets. But I also visited a school with no decent toilets, forcing the children to find a private spot outside or go back home when nature calls. Imagine the impact that has on their education, not to mention their health and confidence.

Stigma and myths restrict women and girls' lives

The stigma around periods and the lack of proper information means many girls rely on what their family or friends tell them, which is often inaccurate and can strengthen negative myths. Even in Sweden, some believe you shouldn’t go into the woods while on your period as you’ll attract bears. This, I’m pleased to say, is not backed up by science.

In parts of the world, the myths are even more restrictive on the lives of women and girls. Many are forbidden from taking part in everyday activities during their time of the month, such as drinking milk, eating fruit or touching flowers. In more extreme cases, menstruating women are banished from their home because of the belief they will bring bad luck. It makes me so sad and angry to think of women and girls being excluded in this way, and prevented from living life to the full – all because this basic process is so widely misunderstood.

Turning UK action into global action

At the same time, sanitary products are often unaffordable or simply not available for many, so they rely on homemade alternatives that are not always hygienic or so absorbent. Period poverty is an issue in developed countries as well. In the UK it's one which is starting to be taken seriously, thanks to the hard work of some amazing campaigners who are unashamedly making a noise about it.

We need this kind of action on a global scale. WaterAid is calling on women and men everywhere to talk about periods as part of its Period Proud campaign to address the lack of accurate information and get rid of the stigma and taboos.

If we continue to keep silent on the subject of periods, women and girls won't be able to get the facilities and support they need to deal with something that's such a normal part of life, in a safe and dignified way. We all need to play our part in opening up the conversation.

Keeping it in the family

My mother, who was a nurse, was always very open about periods, and she gave me the confidence to look forward to it. When it finally arrived, I went to tell her and she excitedly shouted out to anyone who could hear, “Why she’s got her period!”

I want to do the same for my daughter, and my wish is that she'll feel proud and excited about starting her period. We'll celebrate it together, just her and me; it’s an important moment.

I want to be much more open about periods with men and women alike, and I hope others will join me. Let’s all be period proud for women and girls everywhere.

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