Mustapha Ben Messaoud, chief of Field Operations and Emergency for UNICEF Afghanistan, reflects upon the importance to dismantle the social norms that suggest men cannot talk about periods.
As my eldest daughter, Aiya, approaches her 13th birthday, her mum and I have been chatting about how we talk to her, together, about menstruation.
‘Together’ is the key word. That’s important for me, as her dad.
I want Aiya to know that menstruation is a normal, manageable process. I want her to know that there is nothing to fear or to be ashamed of. I want her to know that her mum and I are here to support her through this change, and give her everything she needs – sanitary pads and tampons, pain relief medication and hot-water bottles, a cuddle if she needs one, or space if it’s what she prefers. I want her to feel confident and in control. It is her right.
But, honestly, I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated that, in 2021, this conversation is still subject to such denial amongst men. Why are conversations about menstruation between both parents and daughters not commonplace? When I talk about this with my male colleagues and friends who have daughters, I’m often met with looks of discomfort.
“I leave that to my wife,” I hear.
“Oh, that’s women’s stuff,” they stutter awkwardly.
“Ah,” I say incredulously. “I didn’t realise that you could opt into the parts of parenting that appealed most, and delegate the other stuff!”
Prize-giving, yes. Periods, no!
Where does this social conditioning come from? Since when are you less of a man if you talk about stomach cramps and heavy flows? How is it different to talking to your son about wet dreams, erections, and sex?
Wherever this social conditioning comes from, it is horribly detrimental to our daughters and to generations of girls around the world. I mean the whole world because this is a global issue. From Lyon to Lagos, Kathmandu to Kyoto, Santiago to Sana’a, men are just looking the other way.
Roughly 800 million girls and women menstruate every day. In too many countries and cultures, there’s so much stigma attached to this basic, biological, function that girls dread their period. Why? Because they are cruelly ostracized.
In Nepal, India, Indonesia, and parts of Nigeria, girls are banished to huts while they bleed. In some tribes in Uganda, women are banned from drinking cow’s milk because of the belief that it would contaminate the whole herd. Elsewhere, girls can either be forced to bathe, or forbidden from bathing.Yet others are not allowed to cook, in case they contaminate the meal. The list of these specious, discriminatory, practices makes my head spin.
When I was Chief of Office for UNICEF in Bentiu, South Sudan, I visited the local schools several times a week and noticed that, sometimes, girls wouldn’t be in class. When I enquired why, I was told that they were, “indisposed”.
They weren’t “indisposed”. They were ostracized because they had their period.
They had skipped school to avoid the teasing and shame, because, in addition to these blinkered attitudes, they faced the added ignominy of not having access to menstrual hygiene products, or adequate toilet facilities to help them manage their periods.
UNICEF estimates that 1 in 10 girls in Africa misses school because of her period. As someone who has dedicated his life to development, this confuses me. We advocate so hard with governments and civil society to get girls into school. We congratulate ourselves when they enroll. Then we fail to tackle stigma around menstruation, and as a result, they can’t attend classes. Surely, the definition of a Sisyphean task!
We know that when girls graduate high school, they are more informed about nutrition and healthcare, have fewer and healthier children, and marry at a later age. They are more likely to participate in the labor market and earn higher incomes. In short, they lift communities and countries out of poverty.
By failing to tackle the stigma perpetuated by men and boys, we are preventing girls from reaching their full potential. Am I exaggerating if I call this a development emergency?
Thankfully, if you look hard, there are some signs of positive change.
India’s “Menstrual Man,” Arunachalam Muruganantham, invented a machine to produce low-cost sanitary pads, because his wife couldn’t afford the expensive imported ones. In South Sudan, a group of men and boys, Men4Women, is breaking cultural taboos on menstruation. They teach menstrual health and hygiene, provide sanitary pads for impoverished girls, and encourage boys and men to discuss menstruation. Last year, under Nicola Sturgeon’s enlightened leadership, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free.
But such efforts are sporadic. We must do better. UNICEF, the agency that I work with, must lead the way in scaling up provision of hygiene kits, and leveraging our expertise in behavior change to seriously tackle these social norms that say men can’t talk about periods.
They can, and they must.
Aiya’s 44-year-old Tunisian-French dad is about to, because it is the right thing to do.
Mustapha Ben Messaoud is the chief of Field Operations and Emergency for UNICEF Afghanistan. He has over 15 years of humanitarian experience with extensive work in Africa.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.
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