Periods - all your questions answered | ActionAid UK

Periods - all your questions answered

Periods and menstrual hygiene are a key part of life and sexual and reproductive health.

But it can be a confusing and difficult time for women and girls around the world.

During and because of menstruation, women and girls have to bear the potential harm to their health from lack of access to sanitary products. They have to deal with secrecy, taboos and discriminatory practices against them. And most importantly, women and girls suffer the short and long term affects on their education, working ability and particpation in life’s activities

This is why periods and menstrual hygiene is an important focus for ActionAid. We work closely with women, girls and their communities to ensure women can enjoy their full sexual and reproductive rights. 

Our supporters ask us important questions about our approach and how we work to help girls and women manage their periods with dignity.

Read on for a list of frequently asked questions and answers about periods and our work.

Contents

Periods

 

Periods — period poverty

 

Periods — humanitarian emergencies

 

Periods — shame and stigma

 

Periods — sustainability and the environment

What is a period or menstruation?

Period or menstruation is the regular release of blood and tissue from the uterus through the vagina.1

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What is menstrual hygiene and why is it important?

Menstrual hygiene or menstrual hygiene management refers to the use of menstrual hygiene products to collect menstrual blood and access to private facilities to change and dispose of used menstrual materials.

Menstrual hygiene is important to ensure prevention of infection and to enable girls and women to lead healthy and productive lives
 

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What is the definition of period poverty?

Period poverty is the lack of access to resources like sanitary products, washing facilities and private spaces to manage menstrual hygiene. Period poverty also includes the restrictions placed on girls and women due to shame and cultural taboos surrounding menstruation.

Both, a shortage of resources and shame attached to menstruation can have further affects on the lives of girls and women such as impeding their education or ability to work. Find out more about period poverty.

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How much can periods possibly cost? Sanitary towels are just a £1 in the pound shop!

Periods can be expensive. It is estimated that the average lifetime cost of having a period if £4,800 in the UK2. This includes sanitary products, underwear, and pain relief. 

In Malawi, a pack of sanitary pads costs more than a whole day’s pay. Since most women and girls need at least two packs per period, this could mean spending two days’ pay every month on sanitary products3. In Kenya, a pack of eight pads costs about one US dollar, but half of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.4

It’s not just about money, in some places there are simply no tampons or pads available in local shops or communities - either due to cultural stigma or practicalities of manufacturing and shipping. 

Want to know how much your period costs you? Try our period calculator and find out what you could be shelling out on period products over the course of your life.

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How do periods affect education?

Period poverty and stigma can have an adverse impact on girls’ education and further opportunities in life. In the UK and around the world, some girls who have limited or no access to sanitary protection skip school every month due to fear of staining and discomfort.

Many also don’t have access to safe and clean toilets to change their sanitary towels or wash their hands.

One in 10 girls in Africa miss school because they don’t have access to sanitary products, or because there are no safe, private toilets to use at school.5  Many girls miss up to 50 days of school or work every year because of period poverty and stigma. 6

Find out more about how period poverty affects girls’ education and empowerment.

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What is the relationship between periods and violence?

We know many girls around the world miss out on school due to their period. And in the long term, skipping valuable days at school could mean a girl does not finish her education.

Little or no education could have a devastating impact on a girl’s life. It could mean she is more likely to be forced into child marriage7, more likely to get pregnant at a young age8 and is more vulnerable to violence and abuse.9 

Girls who have no education are more likely to marry by the time they turn 18, compared to girls with secondary education.10 

And girls who have been married as a child to older partners are more susceptible to violence due to social isolation and lack of independent resources.9 

Read more about the link between period poverty and violence.

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How does ActionAid work on ending period poverty?

ActionAid trains women and girls to make reusable sanitary pads, so they always have access to clean and affordable sanitary products.

We provide information about periods, sex and pregnancy in our girls’ clubs and safe spaces in schools. We are working with communities such as those in Nepal to put an end to practices like Chhaupadi.

Lastly, in humanitarian emergencies we distribute hygiene kits containing sanitary pads, soap and underwear to help women and girls to manage their periods safely. 

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Why not put poor women and girls on birth control or the contraceptive pill?

Women and girls all over the world have right to their own bodily autonomy and should be able to make choices about what happens to their bodies. 

And ActionAid supports women and girls around the world to claim their full range of sexual and reproductive rights.

We never enforce decisions about women’s and girls’ bodies on them. We challenge practices that deny them control over their own bodies and ensure they have a spectrum of options available to them. Find out why menstrual hygiene is a right and not a privilege

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Charity begins at home — how are we helping women and girls suffering from period poverty in the UK?

We absolutely recognise that there are many people in need of support in the UK and there are some fantastic charities who help them.

However, ActionAid has always been an international development agency with a main focus on working with women and children in the global south who are living on the margins of survival

We reach over 15 million people in Africa, Asia and the Americas every year.

Find out more about what we do, where we work and who we support.

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Why are sanitary pads important in humanitarian disasters?

Periods don’t stop when conflict erupts or disaster strikes. 

During a crisis, women and girls don’t stop menstruating, and like other women and girls everywhere, they need clean and safe sanitary products to manage their periods with dignity.

In humanitarian emergencies women and girls can be forced to leave their homes and all their belongings. Wherever they end up, be it refugee camps or elsewhere, there may be no guarantee of sanitary protection — it could be a lack of availability of sanitary products or the scarcity of money to buy them. 

We know sanitary products are an essential item in humanitarian crises, because women living through these crises tell us that these are the items that they need the most along with soap and wipes. 

Find out more about periods in humanitarian disasters.

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What do women in humanitarian crises use when they don’t have sanitary pads?

During humanitarian disasters, women and girls are often forced to use whatever they can to manage their periods, including rags, newspapers and even tree bark

For women who are able to access sanitary towels, many have no choice but to re-use them for many days. 

This can be psychologically distressing, uncomfortable and even dangerous, putting them at a serious risk of infection.

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What are menstruation taboos?

Menstruation taboos are religion, custom or culture-based restrictions or prohibitions placed on menstruating women and girls.

For example, in some cultures menstruating women and girls are not allowed to enter places of worship, bathe, cook, eat certain foods or take part in their usual day-to-day activities.

Some of these taboos arise from the perception of menstruation being unclean or shameful.

We reimagined five vintage posters that highlight period myths and stigma that girls and women still face today.

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What are some euphemisms used for periods around the world?

There are over 5,000 euphemisms or slang terms in 10 different languages to describe periods. 

From the commonly used ‘Aunt Flow’ and ‘Time of the month’ to ‘Strawberry Week’ in Germany, ‘Granny’s stuck in traffic’ in South Africa, ‘Mad cow disease’ in Finland and ‘Shark Week’ in USA,11using slang terms or euphemisms to describe periods promotes or exacerbates the stigma and secrecy surrounding periods. 

Instead we celebrate periods openly and mark World Menstrual Hygiene Day every year. Help us banish the secrecy around periods by taking our quiz to find out if you are a Sanitary Superhero and sharing the results!

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How is ActionAid helping to end period shame and stigma?

ActionAid works with communities around the world to end shaming practices that relegate menstruating girls and women to the margins of society.

Although illegal in Nepal since 2005, Chhaupadi — a practice that banishes menstruating girls and women to huts under the belief that the girls will bring bad luck- is still practised in some communities.

These huts can pose several risks to the girls and women living in them including risk of fire, animal attacks and suffocation. Furthermore, women and girls are often left alone with no sanitary facilities or supplies.

ActionAid has set up women’s groups in Nepal where local women can meet and reflect about the issue and come up with solutions to the problem. These ‘reflect circles’ empower women with knowledge and confidence to question dangerous practices and overcome family resistance.

Since our work started in Nepal, more than 1,400 women have stopped practising chhaupadi. ActionAid has worked closely with local partners to establish 11 ‘chhaupadi-free’ communities, helping change people’s beliefs around menstruation. 

Find out more about Chhaupadi and the fearless women who are tackling the practice.

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Why is ActionAid not promoting the use of reusable sanitary pads?

We are! ActionAid provides sewing machines and trains women and girls to make their own reusable sanitary towels in several communities around the world.

This ensures women have safe and hygienic means to manage their periods at very little cost. For some women, this also provides supplemental income and makes a difference to the local girls in the community who receive these for free.

Find out more about our work promoting reusable sanitary towels. You can also try your hand at making a sanitary pad of your own!

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Why can’t we just give the girls menstrual cups or period pants?

Menstrual cups are part of a long-term sustainable solution that we are keen to explore.

Currently, ActionAid has set up a pilot project in Malawi that distributes menstrual cups to women and girls who can’t afford sanitary pads. Even though menstrual cups last for 10 years and are better for the environment, we know that this option is not suitable for everyone.

We work closely with local women and girls and put their voices front-and-centre to increase their access and give them a choice in how to manage their menstrual hygiene. 

Through our discussions with the women and girls we work with, we found that menstrual cups are not understood or not considered culturally appropriate in some of the predominantly rural communities we work with.

Menstrual cups need to be inserted into the body and are regarded with suspicion for this reason. It is also possible that this solution could lead to cultural stigma, stress and further complications, for example if a girl or woman has been subject to FGM.

Period pants are also not widely available in the communities where we work. Where period pants are available, the cost can be high and we have to consider whether women and girls have access to facilities to wash these items between periods, especially during a humanitarian crisis. 

However, we constantly review this to ensure we provide the right products to the women and girls we support, taking cost and location into consideration.

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How do periods affect the environment?

Disposable sanitary products, particularly mass-produced sanitary pads are mostly made out of plastic and other non-biodegradable materials that harm the environment.

Pads can have up to 90% plastic while tampons contain at least 6% plastic12. Plastic production at large scale releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases which cause air pollution and global warming.

Also, the discarding of sanitary products like swaddling them in plastic shopping bags also fills up landfills and takes years to biodegrade.

Flushing sanitary products down the toilet also means that disposable pads and tampons can end up in the ocean and wash up on our shores. This means hundreds of species could potentially get caught in or end up eating parts of these products. 

That’s why ActionAid trains women and girls to make their own reusable sanitary pads so they can have access to good menstrual hygiene at their fingertips. We provide women with sewing machines and the skills to sew and we run projects in schools where we distribute these fabric pads to school girls for free. 

Find out more about how period products have an impact on the environment. 

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ActionAid always tries to source sanitary products as locally as possible.

Sourcing goods in this way helps us to cut down on costs whilst ensuring that the items we provide are appropriate for the local environment and culture.

This not only supports the local and national economy but also facilitates a more efficient response, as it means we don’t have to depend on regional postal systems.

In non-emergencies, we also work with communities on a case by case basis to determine the best solution for women and girls within that community. 

Sometimes that means helping to provide disposable sanitary products, other times it may mean providing women with the tools to create their own reusable sanitary towels and to be able to use them hygienically.

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How can I help women and girls in the global south manage their periods?

You can donate! Regular donations to ActionAid mean that when an emergency strikes, we are able to act fast to provide life-saving aid and urgently needed supplies like sanitary kits to menstruating women and girls.

We don’t walk away. We’re committed to making a sustainable difference and changing their lives for good.


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  • 1. Menstruation and the menstrual cycle fact sheet”. Office of Women’s Health. 23 December 2014. Archived from the original on 26 June 2015. Retrieved 25 June 2015.
  • 2. https://www.bloodygoodperiod.com/#
  • 3. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-36398973?ocid=socialflow_facebook&ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbcnews&ns_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR1hCgSqqB9sFYPnKNCM4g1wvJdoB8dqVQsLhisFeFNccd6EezdyoNoqlTY
  • 4. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/05/10/476741805/what-kenya-can-teach-the-u-s-about-menstrual-pads?t=15555141741
  • 5. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0022/002267/226792e.pdf
  • 6. http://rwanda.unfpa.org/sites/esaro/files/pub-pdf/news_round_up_issue%2017_April%201-12,%2022010.pdf
  • 7. https://www.unicef.org/media/files/UNICEF-Child-Marriage-Brochure-low-Single(1).pdf
  • 8. https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-pregnancy
  • 9. a. b. https://insights.careinternational.org.uk/media/k2/attachments/CARE_Child-marriage-in-emergencies_2015.pdf
  • 10. https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/themes/education/
  • 11. https://rewire.news/article/2008/03/25/in-africa-menstruation-can-be-a-curse/
  • 12. https://friendsoftheearth.uk/plastics/plastic-periods-menstrual-products-and-plastic-pollution

Footnotes

Page updated 16 July 2019