Women’s ‘troubles’ must be aired

In too many parts of the world, girls suffer and miss school at least once a month, writes Shelina Janmohamed

In areas of poverty, boys are more likely to go to school than girls. Globally, 250 million more women are illiterate than men. Issues include a lack of funds and traditional ideas that boys will eventually support the family, which still means discrimination against girls when it comes to the fundamental right to basic literacy.

But there’s another barrier to girls, one that rarely occurs to us: “Women’s problems.”

The fact that I’m using this delightful euphemism already indicates that what should be treated as a basic health issue for women is in reality something we shy away from discussing. Periods are perfectly natural and there should be no shame in talking about them.

Yet for many women around the world, they remain an unspoken and miserable secret.

In many less developed parts of the world, the relatively high cost of feminine hygiene products, along with limited availability and taboos around periods and their associated products, can severely debilitate women’s day to day activities.

Women in poor areas like India often have to choose between buying food for the family or buying sanitary products. In countries like Kenya, girls stay at home during their periods and miss school because they can’t afford the products, or can’t discuss their bodies with anyone.

Unesco estimates that one in 10 African adolescent girls miss school due to their periods and eventually drop out because of menstruation related issues – such as lack of affordable protection and social taboos.

The BBC recently reported that in disaster-struck Nepal women have to wash the few rags they have in dirty water sources located far from their one room huts, and changing their clothes is almost impossible as they share the room with their fathers and brothers, and their needs are unmentionable. And even if they did have sanitary products, there is nowhere to dispose of them.

But all of this could be simple, cheap and easy to solve, if only we talked more openly about the taboo of “women’s problems”. If we were more aware of how it impacts women’s lives – it’s so easy for us in the developed world we don’t even think about this need.

Local entrepreneurs are starting to develop cost effective products from local materials, often reusable, so women can afford them. Supporting such initiatives is crucial.

Writing about such a subject so openly might appear at first blush to be distasteful, even inappropriate. But we must challenge such attitudes.

Menstruation is something natural; there is nothing shameful about it. It should not stop women from daily life.

Every woman has the right to look after her own body, ensuring hygiene and dignity. But not every woman has the opportunity, resources or supportive cultural attitudes to do so.

A shift in attitudes towards more openness, and a small investment in products can reap huge benefits.

Accessible, affordable products and big attitude shifts could give women access to education, employment and ease in their daily lives, and more importantly to cleanliness, health and dignity.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk