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How Taboos Around Menstruation Are Hurting Women's Health

Poor menstrual hygiene and social stigmas can hurt women's health, and the economy

smithsonian.com

In BBC Magazine and the documentary Menstrual Man, we're introduced to the story of self-taught, DIY inventor Arunachalam Muruganantham. It's a classic feel-good story: Muruganantham triumphs over skepticism and other obstacles to create a homemade sanitary pad manufacturing device that's bringing low-cost, locally made menstrual hygiene products to rural India.

This issue is much, much bigger than one man's quirky and inspiring story: strong stigmas around periods may be affecting everything from gender inequality and economic disparity to the prevalence of serious diseases like cervical cancer. Menstrual bleeding is taboo basically everywhere, including the U.S. (sitcoms and commercials with blue water will attest to this). America is a rich enough country that, even if we're not willing to talk about periods in polite company, women have good access to sanitary pads and tampons. But in other parts of the world, stigmas about menstrual hygiene have more serious consequences than some light embarassment at the drug store counter.

In India, say Natasha Khan and Ketaki Gokhale for Bloomberg Businessweek, girls who start their period often have to give up going to school, a source of huge economic inequality down the line. In Nepal and West Bengal, says WaterAid , women who are menstruating are forced out of religious services, school and even social interactions.

A particularly huge problem, though, may be the health problems caused by lack of education, or lack of access to hygiene products like sanitary pads or tampons, says BBC Magazine. “Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.”

Poor menstrual hygiene, caused by practices like reusing old cloths or using sand, leaves or sawdust to absorb menstrual blood, seems to be linked to India's dramatically elevated rate of cervical cancer, says Businessweek. This hygiene-cancer link is backed up by a 2003 study, which found that reusing cloths was associated with a 2.5 times greater risk of serious cervical problems compared to clean cloths or menstrual pads.

The exact health consequences of poor menstrual hygiene are hard to suss out, says a 2013 metanalysis. But the negative effects of the social stigma seem a little more obvious, as women are kept isolated and away from educational opportunities because of a natural part of their reproductive cycle. No one man or organization is going to solve the social aspect of these issues. But efforts like Muruganantham's sanitary pad makers, along with projects like Chitenges 4 ChangeProject Dignity and others, taken together, could help improve the health of women worldwide.

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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