11/10/2017 03:52 BST | Updated 11/10/2017 07:48 BST

The Stigma Around Periods Has To End

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The thing about a taboo is that until someone opens it up for conversation or debate it can stay like an elephant in the room - a big issue everyone is aware of but avoids discussing or acknowledging. Once people start talking, however, taboos that have stood for decades and centuries can be quickly dismantled.

If we think now about previously held attitudes to mental health, different sexualities or disability, we baulk at what the prevailing mind-sets were. None of these are battles that are won, even in 2017, but working and talking together, we've broken down barriers and banished old stigmas.

But one area where stigma and taboo remain largely untouched is menstruation. Did you know that on any given day around 800 million women and girls are menstruating? It's a natural function of a woman's reproductive system that happens everything single month, and no, it's not exactly pretty. It's messy and painful; it can cause you to feel irritable and can disrupt your day, but the one thing it is not, and should not be, is cause for embarrassment.

Ahead of International Day of the Girl on 11th October 2017, girls' rights charity Plan International UK spoke to 1,000 UK girls aged between 14 and 21 in the UK and found that nearly half (48%) felt exactly that, embarrassed about their period. The shame prevents open discussion: it's sad that only one in five girls feel comfortable talking to a teacher about their period (22%) and less than a third feeling okay talking to their dad about it (29%).

This stigma around periods has serious consequences. The silence that engulfs menstruation means girls learning and understanding is reduced to an awkward lesson in the first year of secondary school where boys make jokes and girls are introduced to the idea that periods are disgusting and should remain private. This means when they get their period, many don't have a clue what it is or what to do. We were shocked to discover that one in seven girls (14%) don't know what is happening when they start menstruating and more than a quarter don't know what to do (26%). There has to be a serious failure somewhere for this to be the case.

One teenager we spoke to, Larissa, who is 19, studies politics at university. She's a confident and articulate young woman, but when it comes to talking about her period, her confidence saps away. "A lot of girls - myself included - internalise the message that periods are gross or shouldn't be talked about even when we know it's an entirely natural thing," she said.

And along with almost three quarters (71%) of girls who told us that they've felt embarrassed buying sanitary products, Larissa also said she goes to great lengths to avoid buying products from a shop.

"I always plan ahead and buy my sanitary products in a supermarket order because I figure the five seconds of taking the bag from the delivery van is less time for me to get embarrassed than the whole time it's in my basket and then when I get to the checkout and someone has to scan it."

Shame, disgust, embarrassment...and the worst thing? It's universal. Girls growing up all over the world face discrimination for something they have no control over and something that defines them as a woman. In Nepal, women can be confined to animal sheds during their periods to keep 'impurity' out of the home. In India, girls are told they aren't allowed to leave home during their period and so miss out on school, and in Burundi, east Africa, myths around menstruation mean girls have to comply with beliefs such as the fear that bathing near shared utensils during menstruation can cause family members to die.

In all of these cases, opening up a conversation about periods would start to break down the stigma surrounding them. In the UK, the conversation needs to start with our education system. The new Relationships and Sex Education curriculum which is currently under consultation and due to be rolled out in September 2019, is a great starting point. By incorporating lessons which teach girls and boys, together, about the physical, personal and social aspects of menstruation, it will help to bust taboos that are holding girls back. Schools must also re-examine policies which make managing a period at school a daunting challenge, such as locking toilets during lessons.

So enough, is enough. Periods need to be talked about. Period. Parents need to be open about periods, teachers need to talk about periods with not only girls but also boys, and society as a whole needs to recognise the elephant in the room. This is a taboo that's long overdue in becoming a norm and it needs to change.