The Politics of Periods

Lina AbiRafeh
5 min readJun 7, 2023

As someone who’s bleeding days are nearing a close, I still care deeply about what happens to women and girls who continue to face challenges when addressing something as natural as this. Like, really, what’s the big deal?!

Menstrual Hygiene Day was May 28th. If you read my blog regularly, you’d know how I feel about symbolic days like these. Like International Women’s Day, for instance. All of these days deserve more than a day. But here we are, isolating our attention for 24 hours until we move on and find other things to talk about.

First things first. Menstruation is (1) normal (2) neglected. And there are a lot of us menstruating out there. We’re talking about more than 300 million worldwide on any given day. And, we spend the equivalent of 7 years bleeding in our lifetime. That’s a lot of bloody years — literally.

So, what is menstrual hygiene, anyway?

It ensures that we have access to information, products and supplies, safe spaces, and everything we need to manage menstruation in a way that is clean and safe — with dignity and respect. But it’s about so much more than physical health. We’re talking about access to society, education, and work — about women’s social and emotional health, equality, dignity, and self determination.

Narratives around menstruation are evolving to challenge bias and encompass the holistic way that women experience their periods. For instance, the WHO advocates for using the term menstrual health rather than menstrual hygiene. This links the cause to greater global health movements and also emphasizes the need for a cross-sectoral response. The evolved language also helps fight stigma, erasing any connection between menstruation and being “dirty.”

Menstrual health is also about knowledge and empowerment — about giving those who menstruate the tools and information they need to live in harmony with their bodies. Not in shame. In many cultures around the world, menstruation comes with stigma and restrictions. Young women become commodities once they are of child-bearing age, and women are pushed out of social life and the economy — ostracized for their natural cycles. Around the world women are plagued by their periods. Baffling, when I fail to see what the problem is with this natural thing.

Worse, there’s a thing called “period poverty.” What’s that, I hear you say?

It’s this: a lack of access to menstrual products, hygiene facilities, waste management, and education. The limitations and effects of period poverty take different forms — financial, physical, emotional, social. Not having access to menstrual hygiene products, physically or financially, forces women to make sacrifices in their life on behalf of their natural cycles. A UN report estimates that one in 10 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their period.

I wrote a blog last year about the Girl Child Network in Kenya, and its director Mercy Musomi. I met Mercy in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. She was working to support girls who otherwise would have had no support. Mercy’s Network supports girls to stay in school and builds leadership skills through after-school activities. Once, Mercy noticed that the girls were missing up to a week of school a month because they did not have sanitary supplies. And so she found a way to raise money to distribute pads. And then she noticed that the girls did not even have underwear. And so Mercy found a way to provide that too.

So, yes, period poverty is a thing. And it’s a big thing.

When we think about social determinants of health, stigma plays a huge role in people’s ability to access the care they need for their menstrual cycles. This in turn affects women’s outcomes in every aspect of their lives.

It’s everywhere — worldwide.

For instance, in parts of the US and UK, more than 50% of women reported having to choose between buying food or hygiene products — or not being able to afford menstrual hygiene products at all.

If we’re being honest, access to supplies and care is the bare minimum. Women and girls are commodified by their periods — deemed ready to be sold as brides once they menstruate and deemed obsolete when their cycles come to a natural end in older age. I remember an expression I heard in Afghanistan: “A girl should have her first period in her husband’s house, not her father’s house.” Meaning, girls are forced into marriage at an even earlier age, before they want to, and before their bodies are ready for whatever comes with marriage. And so many religions view menstruating women as “unclean,” barring them from religious sites while bleeding. I could say a lot about religion and its views on women, but I’m gonna save that for another blog!

Ultimately, periods create loneliness, alienation, shame and depression for many women. We deserve to be informed and supported, but this is seldom the case. Most countries don’t even have comprehensive sex ed, forcing us into ignorance around our bodies and their natural functions. I’m amazed that young people have to figure these things out on their own, rather than being guided through this new process.

For many women in the US, the only education we receive around our bodies comes in the form of rudimentary health classes — which have been banned or politicized in many states. Globally, women are socialized to be uninformed and abstinent rather than given the right to live in harmony with their bodies.

And what about when we’re done?!

I’ve discussed menopause with tons of women — who report gaslighting by practitioners, neglect by medical researchers, and being sidelined as they enter this major hormonal shift. A recent UK study found that more than 90% of postmenopausal women were never taught about menopause at school. Women entering menopause are misdiagnosed with psychiatric problems, told we are exaggerating, and dismissed. If you want more evidence on this topic, check out Elinor Cleghorn’s Unwell Women: Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Man-made World.

Bottom line: We need to do better by women, no matter what stage of life we’re at. We deserve to be informed — and empowered — about our own bodies and our rights to them.

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!