17/06/2016 11:12 BST | Updated 17/06/2017 06:12 BST

Scouts Unite Globally to Challenge Menstrual Taboos

As a young woman in the UK, it seems crazy to me that something as simple and natural as menstruation could have a detrimental impact on girls' lives.

Yet, despite 800 million women being on their period on any given day, the subject is often shrouded in silence and stigma. During a recent visit to Madagascar with WaterAid, I learned first-hand how women and girls are affected by menstrual taboos and a lack of access to sanitation, as well as how Scouts are working with the international charity to change this.

The trip was part of UK Scouting's community impact initiative - A Million Hands - which sees more than 65,000 young people working together to ensure everyone everywhere has access to clean water and sanitation. Linking up with Malagasy Scouts is a huge step in helping achieve this.

Scouts in Madagascar are delivering menstrual hygiene education and helping dispel the mystery and myths that surround periods. They also campaign for clean water and toilets for all. This is a huge issue. More than one billion women have no access to a private toilet, making it difficult to manage their periods hygienically.

I joined a camp for Scout leaders, where they were running sessions on menstrual hygiene and discussing how to roll out the education to their local schools and communities. It was amazing to see young men and women discussing this sensitive issue with such passion, and I am inspired by the enthusiasm they all showed for breaking down barriers and ensuring no woman is shamed or suffers ill health, just for being a girl!

I met a fellow leader called Nicholas, who explained the lack of information around menstruation and the extent of the taboos in Madagascar.

The Malagasy word for 'menstruation' actually means 'taboo', so at its very essence it should not be spoken about. In parts of the country, women are segregated and have restrictions imposed on them during their period. For example, they have to use a different door and sit separately at special events.

Some villages are very remote and the schools are basic, so many girls never learn how to hygienically manage their periods, which can lead to infections. A lack of proper facilities also impacts on their education, dignity and mental wellbeing.

I was shocked by how such a normal process could cause so much harm. However, it was really inspiring to see Scouts taking action on this important issue, and the impact they are having in transforming lives.

They showed such enthusiasm when telling us about the songs, plays and silly sketches they use to help remove people's embarrassment, educate communities, and break down stigmas around periods.

They are at the heart of their communities, and are so trusted - in fact, local people call them 'change-makers'! I love how strong their commitment is, and it was clear what a huge impact their work is having.


Scouts lead a session on menstrual hygiene. Photo credit: WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala

The Malagasy Scouts are leading the way on this issue, and I am excited to see Scouts in the UK following their incredible example as part of A Million Hands. This Menstrual Hygiene Day, on 28 May, we shared Nicholas's story with Scouts across the UK to start getting people talking about this issue to help end the stigma and ensure that every woman and girl has access to clean water, good sanitation and hygiene.

Menstrual hygiene is not just a girls' issue, nor something that only matters in the developing world. Here in the UK, one in four Scouts are girls, and all of us have women we care about, whether mothers, sisters, daughters or friends.

I firmly believe that everyone needs to unite to challenge taboos around periods, both in the UK and internationally, so women and girls the world over are able to deal with periods in a hygienic and dignified way, and do not have to suffer this completely natural process in silence or fear.