No more hushed-up talk on the period

Activists say it is time for girls and women to speak up about menstrual pain and hygiene. But even boys must be educated if the negative stereotypes about female sexual and reproductive health must end. MATTHEW VELLA reports

Maria Ellul, Mina Jack Tolu and Anja Dimitrijevic during a panel debate at the Stop the Stigma conference
Maria Ellul, Mina Jack Tolu and Anja Dimitrijevic during a panel debate at the Stop the Stigma conference

In last week’s edition of MaltaToday on Sunday, Mina Jack Tolu was misgendered in this article by using the wrong pronouns. The accurate version of the article is this corrected version. MaltaToday is committed to respect individuals’ right to self-determination on gender and identity.

“It-tifla waqghet it-tarag...”

Euphemesims. “That time of the month again...” Jokes. ‘Embarassing’ blood stains. Tampons falling out of a purse. Urgent bathroom requests. When does the talk on menstruation and period pain become normalised?

It is, admittedly, a challenge that Malta’s Human Rights Directorates feels urgent enough about. At a conference marking the launch of such a campaign, the message is clear: ‘Stop the stigma. Period.’ And it is a campaign that targets not just the taboo of talking about menstruation among women, but even the avoidance of the subject by fathers and young men who refuse to deal with something that affects half of the human population.

It’s only basic biology. But this kind of knowledge remains elusive, as a panel of speakers of all ages told the Stop The Stigma conference.

Marjoe Abela, from the Secretariat for Catholic Education, says her mother was an open-minded woman, but decades ago, even when it came to explain menstruation to her, “she left out the most important thing... the blood.”

Eventually, it was left up to a cousin to explain to her the more intimate details of this reality.

To this day, these informal spaces of education seem to be the more dependable source of information for young women and girls to learn about one of the most basic aspects of sexual and reproductive health. The activist Mina Jack Tolu says that as a church school student, left without the proper answers on menstruation, it was only from hanging out with queer women and trans men that they started receiving the proper information on the menstrual cycle, normal and abnormal pain, and period hygiene.

Removing the stigma

But how about asking a 12-year-old student?

Anja Dimitrijevic may be lucky to have parents who are also women’s rights activists, where a capacity for openness and awareness goes a long way in equipping young people with such knowledge on ‘sensitive’ subjects. But as she told an audience of stakeholders, government authorities and activists, it takes a structured approach inside schools to truly remove a stigma that still lives on with young adults, both male and female.

“As somebody who goes to an all-girls church school, it’s not the easiest subject to experience,” she said of the science lessons that dealt with menstruation. “It’s sad to say that there are still people who do not get a full education at my age.”

Get people talking about it, she proposes, with a hands-on approach. “If we had free products distributed at schools, it would help out a lot because it would encourage discussion about the correct application of the products, and there would be more questions asked that need answering.”

Openness and discussion is at the heart of a new campaign that seeks to end the stigma on menstrual hygiene and care, a discussion that is linked to gender equality by including boys in the overarching discourse of sexual and reproductive health. The campaign ‘End The Stigma. Period’ has been launched by the Human Rights Directorate, as part of a pilot project that is also distributing menstruation products to female pupils in co-ed schools.

As a trans male and non-binary activist, Mina Jack Tolu believes the key to destigmatising menstruation also likes in demystifying the notions surrounding the first time a girl gets her period, as a kind of biological passage into womanhood – even because not necessarily all girls will get their periods in their early teens.

Tolu’s poignant recollection of a family holiday canoeing on French rivers and rapids, marred by their period arriving right at the peak of this fun-filled adventure, is a very particular eye-opener. “Suddenly blood starts flowing... I stuff my blood-stained shorts in the canoe and jump as often as possible in the water believing it will stop the bleeding,” they say of this unwelcome guest that clouded one of their most beautiful memories.

Years later they recognised the upside of having to wear their dad’s t-shirt, because their clothes had been all drenched. “I was mistaken for a boy by someone, and it made me happy – an experience of gender euphoria, only hours after trying to remove all evidence of my period.”

Trans men also experience menstruation

This fear of getting a period, and its definite link to womanhood, is what Tolu challenges in the way it is spoken about. “Having a period is something also experienced by trans men... so we must make sure that in the same way that genitals are not equated to gender, so are certain bodily functions not equated to gender.”

This ‘female’ framing is perhaps what Tolu finds objectionable even when they smell menstrual products like tampons and pads, perfumed in a way that covers the scent of blood. “To this day I cannot stand the smell,” they say of the quality of its femininity. “I hope that as schools talk more about trans people and children, a better environment is created for these children and that includes demystifying the period as belonging only to a woman.”

Fathers and boys

Educating both boys and women about menstruation is key to the campaign, says Maria Ellul, a research manager in human rights and gender mainstreaming. “Whether or not you suffer from menstrual period, you are encountering people who are experiencing it. Being educated about menstruation means you can empathise better with them.”

Ellul says that reaching out to wider society also means facing the facts of menstruation without banalising it according to preconceptions about the ages that are dealing with it. “It’s very important that we stop dividing the educational curricula according to age and gender... we need to be a well-informed society on things that ultimately affect us all and acknowledge that people are reluctant to learn or be open on topics they are uncomfortable with it. It is up to our directorate to put forward this information to make people aware of what is happening.”

Abela says fathers remain absent in parent meetings that deal with such subjects as menstruation. “The stigma must be fought at home as well,” she says. But, she says, a question of culture in schools is also important – research commissioned by the Human Rights Directorate from RSM shows that only 37% feel there is sufficient discussion about period health in schools, while 94% of the student population want to talk about it more.

“Educators, not only PCSD teachers, have to deal with it,” Abela says. “Real questions from 10-year-olds include asking whether a male teacher would allow them to go the toilet should they need it. That reassurance must be common practice and it has to be part of a culture fostered by senior management teams in schools.”

Even more co-ed mixing would go far in removing the negative stereotypes about menstruation – such as teasing or joking about ‘that time of the month’. “Boys who don’t know what this is about should be educated about it,” says Anja Dimitrijevic, “because they will be meeting people who will be experiencing it. It is a human thing.”

And Maria Ellul thinks yet more work needs to be done when it comes to educating men about the apparent discomfort menstruation elicits in them. “Even my father feels uncomfortable

The fact that we fail to acknowledge the word ‘period’ leads to the fact that we are shy to say that we are on our period and that we are pain. That leads to a lack of understanding among peers and the people we spend the most time with.”