I vividly remember the day I first got my period. I thought I was well prepared - my all-girls school had spent the last few years teaching us all about periods, many of my friends had started theirs already, and I'd read Are You There God, It's Me Margaret by Judy Blume. However, after a brief moment of, "Oh, THIS is happening," I realized that I wasn't quite as prepared as I had thought; I knew I needed a pad or a tampon, but I didn't have any. As my mum was out of town, this mission would require involving my dad. Cue pre-teen dying of embarrassment.
I'm willing to bet that if you ask most women, they will be able to recount the story of the first time they got their period. It's a moment that sticks with you no matter how prepared you are, particularly because for many girls around the world, it is punctuated by fear, anxiety, and embarrassment.
I was lucky. When I got my period I knew exactly what was happening, and after a brief moment of embarrassment with my dad, I had everything I needed to manage it safely and comfortably. That's not the case for many girls.
Unfortunately, a startling number of girls have no idea what is happening when they first get their periods. A study in Maharashtra, India found that only 37 percent of girls were aware of menstruation before the onset of their periods, and that statistic is by no means an outlier.
Can you imagine how terrifying getting your period for the first time would be if you had no idea what was happening?
Even when girls have some knowledge of menstruation before their period arrives, it can still be a confusing and scary time. Frequently, because of the prevalence of myths and misinformation, they have frightening misconceptions, such as the belief that periods are a curse, a representation of sin, or a disease.
These misconceptions and other similar ones are widespread in many parts of the world and can have serious consequences. In some places, women and girls are excluded from certain activities during their periods, such as bathing, cooking, or religious practices. Girls are also afraid to tell their parents, friends, or confidantes that they have started their periods, which limits their ability to receive support and advice.
Beyond these knowledge barriers, many girls face practical barriers to managing their periods comfortably. They don't have access to a toilet or a place to privately wash themselves at home or at school. They don't have access to affordable hygienic menstrual hygiene products.
These issues combined can lead to a pretty harrowing first period experience for many girls. While that alone is upsetting, evidence suggests that a girl's initial experience with her period can affect how she views her period for the rest of her life. And, while women and girls become more practiced at navigating the barriers described, those barriers don't disappear.
So, what can we do?
We need to educate women and girls from a young age about menstruation and their options for managing it, so that no girl is left wondering what is happening when she first gets her period.
We need to engage men and boys, because without them, it is impossible to correct widespread misconceptions and change social norms.
We need to ensure that girls have the safe, private spaces, and the menstrual hygiene materials they need to manage their periods safely and comfortably.
This is why the child rights organization I work for, Plan International, is working across Africa, Asia, and Latin America to implement comprehensive menstrual health programming. From partnerships with BeGirl and AFRIpads aimed at ensuring sustainable access to menstrual hygiene materials, to projects improving access to girl-friendly sanitation facilities, we're helping girls overcome the practical barriers to managing their menstruation. Simultaneously, we're engaging women and girls, and men and boys, to share information, illuminate options, and break down social barriers to ensure that no girl is scared or embarrassed because of this natural process.
There's also a final thing that we can all do: speak up, start talking and break the silence. Even in the UK and the U.S., periods remain a taboo subject. I work on this topic every day, and I still hesitated before including my own experience in this blog. This silence not only helps to perpetuate the embarrassment and discomfort that many women, particularly young girls, feel around this topic, but it also means that it remains underfunded, under researched, and underrepresented in global policy.
So, this Menstrual Hygiene Day, #LetsTalkPeriods.