The final taboo
The final taboo
Menstruation is a monthly event for half the world’s population and affects women’s participation in sport – so why do we remain silent?
‘Sometimes when you are running you feel as if it will fall out and leak.’
Everlyn, Kisumu, Kenya.
Given the frequency and number of people affected by menstruation, one would hope that society and technology would be advanced enough for a woman’s period to be nothing more than a slight inconvenience.
Unfortunately, the topic remains a taboo even in relatively open societies, as shown by the huge media reaction when tennis player Heather Watson attributed her loss at the Australian Open to “girl things”.
Moreover, Miki Agrawal (CEO and co-founder of THINX) notes that, “Tampons were invented in 1931 and aside from adhesive strips and wings on pads, there hasn’t been any major innovation in 85 years”. However, even these advancements are not available everywhere, and in many parts of the world periods still cause major disruptions to daily life.
Numerous studies have explored the link between girls starting their menses and school absenteeism, noting that the lack of access to female hygiene products and sanitation, fear of embarrassment, and cramps often prevent girls from attending school.
The same factors obviously also affect girls playing sport. When even top athletes have nightmares about accidents, the fear is much greater for girls who use makeshift pads and live in societies that view menstruation as dirty. As a consequence they often refrain from participating in physical activities.
‘When I am on my monthly period I can wash utensils, wash clothes, but I cannot play...I am afraid...that it can fall down’.
Valentine, Kisumu Kenya
Implications for sport and development projects
There are already a number of programmes teaching girls about reproductive health and hygiene. However, a gendered perspective taking into consideration menstruation is critical to sport-based programmes. Coaches and organisers should consider the following questions:
- Are there sufficient sanitary facilities available with enough privacy for girls?
- Do these facilities include a place to dispose of sanitary napkins and water to wash reusable ones?
- Are the coaches paying attention to whether girls regularly miss practice?
- Is there a plan for discussing or addressing the issue in a sensitive and culturally appropriate way?
- If a girl bleeds through while playing sports, is there a change of clothes for her?
- Are there painkillers for menstrual cramps?
- Are sanitary pads or innovative new products like Flo or menstrual cups available?