Having your period shouldn't hold you back

Image: WaterAid/Kate Holt

WaterAid Youth Ambassador Vivian Onano weighs in on menstrual taboos, girls' education and more on International Women's Day.

Your period. Aunt Flow. That time of the month. Whatever you call it, menstruation is a reality for women and girls around the world.

The average women will menstruate once a month, for roughly 35 to 40 years of her life. That’s approximately 3000 days—more than 8 years—of periods during her lifetime. At any given time, 800 million women and youth worldwide are menstruating.  

Menstruation is a universal female biological experience. You would think by now it would be no big deal. You’d be wrong.

In far too many places, menstruation remains a source of shame that women and girls struggle to deal with month after month, year after year. Many don’t have the supplies they need to hygienically deal with menstruation – or the private spaces to use, clean, or properly dispose of supplies. Without access to clean water, women and girls reuse unclean menstrual cloths, putting them at risk of infection. Others face discriminatory religious or cultural practices that classify menstruating women as impure or dirty, and limit where they can go, what food they can eat, and what services they can access. And a shocking number of girls don’t even know what is happening to them the first time they get their period. Imagine that for a minute. It must be terrifying.

These are all human rights violations. But there is another one, which arises directly from period stigma, that is one of the most important, and closest to my heart: impact on girls’ education.


Menstrual Hygiene Management training with WaterAid for boys and girls in Madagascar.
Menstrual Hygiene Management training with WaterAid for boys and girls in the Menabe region, Madagascar.
Image: WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala

Governments don’t properly prioritize the basic supplies and infrastructure schools need to keep girls comfortable and safe while menstruating at school. Schools may not have the training or curriculum to build allies out of teachers and to ensure girls and boys understand this natural process. Add these to period stigma, and you have a whole series of problems that often result in girls missing school or eventually dropping out entirely.

More than 30 percent of schools in the developing world do not have access to clean water. Most places don’t even track whether there are latrines in schools but some data are available. For example, an estimated 75% of public primary schools in Niger don’t have a latrine. Without safe, private latrines with enough space to change menstrual cloths and wash and dry them if needed, many girls do not attend school while menstruating.


A community leader teaches menstrual hygiene to women in Kanpur India.
Pooja Bharti, 24, a community leader, teaches menstrual hygiene and women's health to women in Kanpur, India,
Image: WaterAid/ Poulomi Basu

Girls who do attend often report being afraid of leaks, bullying, and teasing.  The result? Girls miss up to 20% of school time due to poor menstrual hygiene information, supplies, and infrastructure at school.

These girls fall behind and eventually drop out, putting them at higher risk of early marriage, early pregnancy, poor health and leaving them unable to break the cycle of poverty. All because we aren’t demanding toilets, sanitary supplies, and information about menstruation loudly enough.

As a Youth Ambassador for WaterAid, and a girl who grew up in the same circumstances I’m describing, I’ve experienced these challenges first hand.

So, what can we do?

  • Talk openly. The best way to break stigma is to talk openly about menstruation and menstrual hygiene. Even when you make people uncomfortable. Especially when you make people uncomfortable. Accurate, pragmatic information is critical to breaking down stigma, erasing misconceptions, and increasing understanding.  Incorporating lessons into health curriculums in primary schools can help to reduce fear for girls and educate boys that menstruation is not a source of shame. For this to happen, organizations like WaterAid need strong partners in the women’s health and education sectors.

  • Change policies. We also need to talk to our policymakers to help ensure women and girls have the infrastructure and supplies needed to manage their periods safely and with dignity.  No matter where you live, your government is obligated to meet basic needs to water, sanitation and hygiene, and to support you to finish school without fear.

Menstruation is not going away. Aunt Flow will keep visiting. It will be that time of the month again. And unless we shout loudly enough that all the governments, private sector, teachers, and students in the world have heard us, that time of the month will risk another girls’ education. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough.

This International Women’s Day, let’s commit to treating menstruation like exactly what it is – a recurring reality for literally half of the world’s population. It deserves our attention, our time, and our unblinking eyes until it’s no longer a barrier to girls reaching their potential.