The menstruation taboo: Around the World in 28 Days


Nicaragua - c. Burns

“¿Heyling? »

I looked up from the class attendance sheet to scan the classroom for Heyling, a student at Los Talleres de Colegio Roberto Clemente in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua.

« Hoy no vino, profe, » chimed a few of Heyling’s friends, stating without detail that Heyling had not come to school that day.

« ¿Otra vez? ¿Y eso? »

I said aloud, frustrated at Heyling’s third consecutive absence that week. Heyling’s friends muttered amongst themselves, looking unsure of whether or not they should answer.

« ¿Está malita o qué? Tenemos un examen el viernes, díganle que lo tendrá que hacer, sí o sí. »

While I was the youngest teacher at Roberto Clemente, and actively trying to earn the unofficial title of the coolest teacher – la profe más tuani – I wasn’t about to be the pushover teacher. Heyling would have to take the Unit 4 test on Friday with the rest of the class, despite missing the days leading up to the it. Without a doctor’s note, it was school policy that I could not excuse a student from completing their work or any sort of examination.

Heyling’s friends rushed my desk and were hovering over me:

“ Tenemos que contarle algo…es de Heyling… »

These girls looked worried and upset, and needed to tell me something about Heyling…which in turn worried me. In a place like Ciudad Sandino, safety for a child was always at risk, even and especially in their own homes. Many of my students lived unstable family lives, and even those in the most stable families were not immune to the effects of real, material poverty that plagued the former refugee tent city where we all lived.

I looked up at the girls, and tried to read their worried faces. They knew it had been Heyling’s third absence that week, which would also make her eligible to receive some sort of disciplinary action from her homeroom teacher, for whom I collected afternoon attendance. Disciplinary action was not usually grave, but did involve letters being sent home to parents.

The girls kept their voices hushed, saying that they couldn’t tell me here, not there in the classroom.

« Es que…bueno…pues…Heyling…bueno, tiene la regla, por eso no pudo venir hoy…y no creemos que venga hasta que…bueno ya sabrá, profe. »

And there it was, the reason that Heyling had missed three days of school and would miss even more according to her friends: Heyling had her period. La regla – my students had whispered it when they said it, as if it were a bad word. As I shuffled my students back into class and began the lesson, there was a sense of hush over the room that you really didn’t often find in a classroom full of 14 and 15 year olds. Heyling’s friends sat down, still looking concerned, and even the other students in the room had knowing looks on their faces. Everyone knew exactly where Heyling was, and what’s more–everyone was ashamed on Heyling’s behalf.

In Ciudad Sandino–and other materially poor cities and towns throughout Nicaragua, I’m sure–girls missing school due their periods is commonplace. In fact, missing out on daily life tasks and duties, like work and school, due to la regla was normal not just for girls, but women. I had several coworkers that would mysteriously disappear around the same time every month, taking sick time to live what every single woman in the world lives on a monthly basis. And yet, for such a common reason for missing work or school, admitting to having your period was something that brought my students and coworkers sheer and utter shame. They whispered the word – la regla – as if it were dirty, punishing and made them less.

La regla – my students had whispered it when they said it, as if it were a bad word.

I won’t lie – having a period every month is not something I look forward to, nor is it something I find particularly amusing. However, having a period reminds me I am healthy, I am strong in Mother Nature’s view, and most importantly, I am a woman. Do I shout it from the metro:


No, of course not. But am I ashamed to lend or ask for a tampon to a fellow sister of womankind in the bathroom? Am I worried to admit to friends – regardless of whether they have ever had a period or not – that I’m not feeling up to drinks because my ovaries are throbbing and testing my will to live? Do I skip school or work for fear of colleagues finding out I have my *gasp* period? No, no and no. Perhaps I’m lacking a good dose of self-inflicted shame in my life, given my feelings surrounding those questions, but I don’t envy (nor do I judge) the women that answer yes to any of those questions. Instead, I’ll say that it seems unfair to answer yes to those questions–why should we feel shame, hide our bodies’ monthly routine, or miss out on life? Especially, for something that is natural and ultimately not up to us whether it happens or not.

Heyling missed class because she had her period. In Nicaragua, feminine products – pads and tampons – are quite costly, especially in comparison to the high rates of unemployment and general low wages. The only places you could get pads or tampons in Ciudad Sandino were the mini-Palí grocery store and a handful of pharmacies…and when these venues were out of feminine supplies, Ciudad Sandino was out of feminine supplies. Going to the store to buy pads or tampons involved being watched by men – whether friendly neighbors or the more worrisome men that lingered on corners to hiss and smack their lips at any and every female that walked by. Going to the pharmacy for these products meant paying a premium for the brands we may find in our own Carrefour or Monoprix. These were feats my students and coworkers did not want to face, and more often than not, could not face given their precarious financial situations.

And so they would miss out on school, football games, work, life. Women would use rags or just try to stretch the life of a tampon inside them, putting them at risk for TSS. Girls would wear pads for days without changing them, unable to come to school because of the smell, exacerbated by the heat. Menstruation—as normal as having a runny nose or sore foot—was not sustainable…it was stopping women from basic life tasks.

In Ciudad Sandino, there was no Diva Cup; there was no Moon Cup; there was no sustainable solution for the monthly, healthy bodily process. While I cannot speak for the whole of Nicaragua, Central America, or Latin America, I can say that within the community I lived, having your period was shameful, disgusting, and even dangerous, depending on the practices. Privileged enough to have brought a Diva Cup with me, I was alright every month that reminder of being alive rolled around. But living on the volunteer stipend of $37USD/month and seeing the prices of feminine hygiene products, I would not have been able to use tampons or pads on a monthly basis either.

In Ciudad Sandino, there was no Diva Cup; there was no Moon Cup; there was no sustainable solution for the monthly, healthy bodily process.

Access to feminine hygiene products must be improved—this is a fact. However, education on and understanding of just how dangerous certain practices revolving around menstruation hygiene must be developed as well. By creating programs to bring sustainable menstruation cups to women, not only in Ciudad Sandino, not only in Nicaragua, not only in Central America, but all over—this is how lives can be saved. This is how lives can be lived. Women should not have to miss out because they cannot afford proper products or because they are ashamed to attempt to purchase these products in front of anyone else. The sustainable menstrual cups provide a viable alternative: a one-time cost, a safer method to use and for up to a longer amount of time between changes, and an environmentally friendly way to menstruate.

Women bleed. We bleed a lot, and we do it once per month, give or take. It’s not gross, it’s not shameful, and it’s certainly not a choice—it’s a literal sign of life blossoming from between our legs. A healthy, accessible and safe way to bleed for days at a time is the least that can be afforded to women—from Paris to Ciudad Sandino. Creating and promoting sustainable menstruation for women worldwide, for Heyling in Ciudad Sandino, isn’t any easy task, but it’s also not impossible. It starts with one—that’s not so hard now, is it?

Text and picture from Katy Burns, November 2017 




Girl producing cloth pads for the EcoFemme association –  ©EcoFemme

Girl to a boy:

“I’m cramping really bad, won’t come out tonight.”

Aunt to her niece:

“Beta, don’t enter the kitchen, just let us know if you need water.”

Mother to her daughter:

“Shh… don’t say that word here, your uncle is around.”

Father to his daughter:

“Here, take this anti-spasm and hot water bottle and just sleep. You’ll get better.”

   These are just a few different situations I’ve encountered in different parts of my country. Having lived a life where my father brought me hot tea, medicine and hot water bottle in times of severe menstrual pain and my male coach told me to rest during my cycle so as to not overburden my body, it was only at the age of 14 that I discovered – this was the life of a privileged woman.
The trigger of this discovery was a family trip to a distant relative’s house in Bombay. My sister and I experienced a cultural shock when we were told that the two of us could not enter the kitchen as we were both on our period. At that moment, we were given a list of instructions, “rules to follow during menstruation”. They included:

Don’t enter the kitchen ; Don’t go near the temple area in the house  ; Don’t eat in the same utensils as everyone else, there is a different set for menstruating women ; DO NOT say the word period or monthly cycle when there are male members in the same room.

   For those few days, we were restricted to one room and a toilet in the house, and, of course, to sitting in the car when the family decided to visit the beautiful temples in the city. Aware of our discomfort, our mother decided to take us to her friend’s place for the remainder of the visit. In that house, we were treated like normal people. We joyfully entered the kitchen in peace, immediately feeling the difference between this sense of freedom and our prior days of agonizing restriction. But what about the daughters of the other household? Would they ever get the chance to live as normal women? In retrospect, I realised that the restrictions placed upon them during menstruation was their normal. The way we are socialised in society, the taboos, the rules, and the right way to behave is what we accept, either due to unawareness or a lack of power to change the rules.
This story has another page. The home of our relatives in Bombay was in proximity to a landfill that was overflowing, like most other landfills. It was the first time I saw the reality of our daily waste – plastic piled several meters high, on top of which would go the menstrual pads we used that month. This waste would continue to accumulate and rot near the households for decades to come, unless we changed what we consumed.

I was empowered by the choice of washable, chemical-free cloth pads that are not only good for my body, but also the environment.

   A few years later…

“I’ve been using these for more than 5 years now and I cannot imagine going back to plastic pads or tampons!”

said the lady at EcoFemme, an organisation working with local women to produce cloth pads and menstrual cups in Auroville, Tamil Nadu. I was empowered by the choice of washable, chemical-free cloth pads that are not only good for my body, but also the environment. This solution driven team of women in the South of India has made it possible for many communities to change their perception and acceptability of a woman’s natural cycle.
I took it as my responsibility to carry this solution with me wherever I go – I found myself sitting in a house in the mountains in Lohajung village, talking to a group of female farmers about menstrual taboos in their community. At that moment, I understood that it only takes a friendly conversation over tea to break the ice and openly talk about the ‘rules of menstruation’.

   Till the age of 14, I was not only privileged, but also ignorant of those privileges. While the experience at my relatives’ in Bombay made me aware, the women in Auroville gave me power to spread this awareness. The female farmers in Lohajung welcomed a new way to experience menstruation, and the women at Sciences Po, Paris have held hands to widen this circle of knowledge and acceptance.
Many changes are needed in India and around the globe in regards to menstrual taboos, our natural cycles, and the sensitivity to the waste we produce. We have a lot of conversations ahead of us, with men and women alike. My story is just a glimpse into one of the million journeys towards positive change.

I menstruate.
I feel heavy, drained, I cry, I lay, I cramp, I stay.
She, she goes for a jog, she works in the fields, she dances all day long, she gives a winning presentation, she wears her boxing gloves and punches the feeling out.
You, you are free, you jump, you hop, you run, you can fly.
This is us. Women. This is our life for most of our lives. We celebrate it, we talk about it… or maybe not. In any case, we embrace it.
Embrace it with us.

Nandini Agarwal, December 2017



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