What is period stigma?
Period stigma manifests in many different ways around the world, but one thing remains consistent through all cultures, women everywhere have been made to feel shame, disgrace, or impurity towards their menstrual cycle for far too long.
Examples of period stigma include everything from the cheeky nicknames we use like "Aunt Flo" to menstrual hut practices where girls are forced to leave their homes and reside in a hut detached from their community during their periods. We often think that period shame is a small issue, but in countries where girls are banished to menstrual huts each month, often without heat and in close proximity to poisonous snakes and dangerous wildlife, the consequences of period stigma can be deadly. Even "less extreme" consequences like missing a week of school each month or dropping out of school completely can have devastating impacts on a girls' life.
Period Stigma in Togo
Until recently, women in Togo were not allowed to be in the presence of a man during their periods, and they were not allowed to cook for men either. In more extreme cases, women were forced to remove themselves from their home during their periods and not return until it was complete. It was seen as bad luck to allow women to be present in their homes during their periods, and people did not want that bad luck to rub off on others.
Things are changing
Through years of sensitization and community efforts, attitudes have visibly evolved throughout Togo, and menstruation beginning to be far less stigmatized. It is true that there are still circumstances where women and girls are shamed for their periods. In fact, it's still very common for a girl to be shamed out of school during her period if she bleeds on her dress because she lacks menstrual supplies. And it is also common for girls to miss school during their periods because they cannot afford proper menstrual supplies, especially in rural communities. But we have been incredibly encouraged lately by the fact that even in the more remote communities we serve, it is not just women who are removing the shame of menstruating, men are now taking an active role in reducing period stigma.
Our menstrual workshop in the village of Atidomé.
Last week, 70 girls and women attended our menstrual pad workshop. What surprised us though, were the 30 fathers who also attended. In fact, the men were the first to arrive to the lesson and we were laughing about how much they wanted to sit in the front of the classroom. (Ultimately, they decided the girls and women should have the front seats, but it was only after some well-intentioned debate about who arrived first).
Throughout the lesson, we received active participation and encouragement from both our girls and their parents. And perhaps the most encouraging example of positive change, we had several fathers approach us at the end of the workshop for more pads to take home to their wives who weren't able to attend. This is very rare in Togo, and it's important.
Though we were not expecting this level of participation, the Atidomé community provided the most amazing example to their daughters. By normalizing menstruation and creating environments of understanding and support, girls don't have to feel alone and ashamed during their periods. They now know they have many people to turn to for questions and support. Barriers are being broken.