Tampons and Taboos: (Mis)Perceptions of the Menstrual Cycle in India, Kenya, and the United States

Our dedicated volunteers on our Kenya project team bring the Be a Rose mission to life! This image captures a pad distribution event at Paul Mbiu Primary School.    Photo Credit:    Symon Victor Thuo

Our dedicated volunteers on our Kenya project team bring the Be a Rose mission to life! This image captures a pad distribution event at Paul Mbiu Primary School.

Photo Credit: Symon Victor Thuo

This month, we travel the world to explore how menstruation is managed in other countries. You might find that you have more in common with your menstruating counterparts in Kenya and India than you imagined.

In Kenya, as in the United States, girls learn about the physiological processes of menstruation in school. As it was for me and likely you, a Kenyan girl learns in the classroom that menstruation means she is fertile and can conceive. However, girls and women in India may have less access to education on menstrual health than their Kenyan and American counterparts. In fact, 90% of the women and girls surveyed during an Indian public education campaign did not know about menstruation until they had their first period. Consequently, these focus group participants shared that they responded to their first menses with fear.

While Indian women and girls might have less access to menstrual education than those in other countries, it is not unusual to hear of girls elsewhere reaching menarche without knowing what it is. In rural Kenya, where girls often repeat grades or start school late, they could experience menarche before they reach the grade when the menstrual cycle is taught. One study participant described how she had gone to the hospital “shaking with fear” when she had her first period. While most girls in the United States are taught about menarche, there remain huge information gaps regarding menstrual and general female health. One advocate points out that the National Institutes for Health did not require that women be included in medical studies until 1991, and thus it took 20 years to determine that women experiencing heart attacks do not present the same way men do. It does not take much creativity to imagine how clinical trials could impact the male reproductive system differently than the female one.

The myth of menstrual fluid as “dirty” remains prominent in all three countries. Studies in Kenya discuss the perception that menstruating women are “polluted” and “unclean.” Only recently did U.S. advertisers start using red fluid to demonstrate menstrual pad absorbency rather than the unrealistic blue liquid that commentators have compared to cleaning products and, by association, unhygienic/unsanitary conditions. An Indian activist notes that advertisements can contribute to stigmatizing menstruation by portraying it as a “problem” that the advertised products will solve. She notes that mothers are often the only source of information about menstruation, though they may lack the necessary knowledge or may themselves “consider it ‘dirty’ to discuss.” This activist started a menstrual health campaign that mainly garnered support online but resulted in her receiving rape and death threats—rather like Gamergate here in the States.

With all the taboos of uncleanliness, you might expect that the cultures in these countries  associate nothing positive with menstruation. Yet, menstruation is valued in rural Kenya as a transition to womanhood and a necessary precursor to the gender expectation of childbearing. In India, menstruation is seen as a “divine” and “powerful” process. However, these positive valuations might be only one side of the coin and may, in fact contribute to a different type of stigmatization. For example, while menstruation is socially valued and many of the girls in the rural Kenyan study noted a “sense of pride” in it, one girl stated that if you do not menstruate and cannot conceive, “you become bad.” A non-profit program manager noted a similar duality in India between the stigmatization of menstruation and menstruating women compared with the celebration that a pregnancy—necessarily dependent on the menstrual cycle—entails. Americans are not much different: bBaby showers, gender reveals, and general excitement over a new pregnancy are common, but most of us likely squirm at the idea of celebrating menstruation (which one menstrual product company plays off in its “First Moon Party” commercial).

As social scientists might put it, menstruation, menstrual fluid, and menstruating women remain sites of contestation over value, meaning, and place in society, both within and between countries. The United States is by no means immune from this contestation—perhaps contrary to our expectations. State governments are arguing over tampon taxes in 2018 while Kenyan lawmakers eliminated theirs back in 2004. Take a moment today to learn more about menstrual taboos and traditions in another country in our world; some things might be different, of course, but I bet you will find a lot in common.

By: Sarah Hoyle-Katz