PERIODS are a natural, biological process experienced by billions of women around the world and yet, despite this universality, they remain hidden behind a veil of secrecy, shame, and stigma.
This stigma is pervasive and deep-rooted, nowhere more so than within south Asian communities. I draw on my own experience growing up as the youngest of three sisters born and brought up in Nepal where we were subjected to the now illegal ritual of chhaupadi – a menstrual taboo which banished us from our house and restricted us from participating in everyday life events.
I was sent away to my aunt’s house for my first period, but across other parts of Nepal, the practice is much more extreme, involving young girls and women being forced to live in cattle sheds or makeshift “menstruation huts”. Poorly constructed, and with a lack of ventilation, these environments can put women and young girls at risk of developing illnesses and vulnerable to attack by snakes or other animals.
Women and girls reportedly die every year performing chhaupadi, with the tragic case of 16-year-old Anita Chand who died from a snake bite while sleeping being reported only days ago.
I count myself lucky that my experience wasn’t so severe, but the impact it had on me was profound. A decade later after moving to the UK, I launched a brand called WUKA and made it my mission to smash these taboos. Inspired by my mother’s use of old sari rags to create reusable period pads I used as a child, I created the UK’s first reusable period pants that completely replace pads and tampons.
When I launched WUKA, a lot of people would ask, “is this really an issue in the UK?” or “wouldn’t this be better in India or Nepal?” It is easy to think these issues don’t affect us here in the UK. Recent results from ActionAidUK research reveal that a quarter (26 per cent) of UK women have faced “period shaming” and millions have missed exercise, education and work over the last year while on their period.
Beyond periods, nearly half (45 per cent) of south Asian women agree the menopause is a taboo subject that’s rarely discussed and only 14 per cent feel reasonably well-informed about its physical effects.
These statistics underline the negative impact of period-related shame on women’s health and well-being right here in the UK.
Since living in the UK, I have witnessed these feelings of shame and stigma around periods remain strong within the Asian community here too. One teenager recently revealed to me that she pretended to fast during Ramadan in order to hide her period from male family members.
I’m also part of the “Recommended Asian” Facebook group where I often see questions from women asking what pills they should take to delay their periods so they can attend weddings and funerals. Most of the responses are about which pills to choose, but only one or two out of 50 comments will question why we even need to do this.
The fact is many of us don’t really know why to begin with. A driving force behind the perpetuation of period stigma is superstition and yet, in reality, these unfounded beliefs have little basis in religious text or practice. This culture of superstition merely serves to fan the flames of ignorance and block the path to progress and equality.
Many of these ideas were passed down to us through myths our grandparents told us, and they’re rooted in a system where men were considered more important than women. Even just recently, during the launch of WUKA’s “Desi Period Stories” campaign in Westfield Shopping Malls, I talked to people passing by our billboards about their views on periods and the stigma that prevails.
I was shocked to hear one young British Asian woman tell me how she cleans herself thoroughly before participating in cultural activities because of the belief that periods are dirty.
This idea needs to change. Periods are not dirty. In fact, they’re a natural and essential part of being human. They’re the reason why humans even exist in the first place. It’s time we challenge these old beliefs and make everyone understand that periods are nothing to be ashamed of.
So what can we do to address it? First, we must encourage questions and challenge norms. The more women and girls ask questions and challenge these long-standing beliefs and practices, the more power they will reclaim over their own bodies and lives. Knowledge is the antidote to ignorance, and curiosity is the spark that ignites change.
Second, we must find allies in this struggle. The battle against period stigma isn’t limited to those directly affected by it, with one in ten (11 per cent) women in the UK citing experiencing negative comments from a current or ex-partner.
Allies play a crucial role, because when friends, partners, family members and work colleagues step up to speak out against superstitions and discriminatory practices, they pave the way for a more inclusive and understanding society.
Last, but not least, by building knowledge through conversation; the more we know about menstruation, its various stages and the diverse experiences of those who menstruate, the more comfortable and normalised the conversation becomes.
Since 2017, WUKA has worked alongside trailblazers within the south Asian community- including Harnam Kaur, Dr Nitu Bajukol and Dr Kiran, to name but a few, covering topics such as body shaming, disability and menstrual health inequalities. Our latest campaign backed by global media company JCDecaux is called #DesiPeriodStories and features a roster of influential talent including sexual wellness educator Seema Anand, menopause advocate Lavina Mehta MBE and disability activist Shani Dhanda talking freely about everything from first periods to (peri)menopause and incontinence.
Paying attention to research and listening to other people’s stories, especially recent tragic events, serves to remind us that the fight against period stigma is an ongoing battle.
The urgency of removing the stigma surrounding menstruation cannot be overstated. This is a movement that is both local and global, echoing across cultures, generations, and continents. We all have a part to play and I truly believe if we break the silence surrounding periods, we will pave the way for a more compassionate and successful future.
So I urge you all to ask one another, what’s your #DesiPeriodStory?
Ruby Raut is CEO and co-founder of WUKA (Wake Up Kick Ass) an award-winning, reusable menstrual underwear brand. See www.wuka.co.uk for more.