Busting Period Myths and Stigma Worldwide

Three Generations Talk Menstruation

This Menstrual Health Day, let’s learn more about periods through conversations between grandmothers, mothers and daughters around the world – what are periods, what is period poverty, and how do we end period stigma?

Words by Norma Hilton
Reading time: 7 minutes


Two women's faces Two women's faces

The first step to ending period stigma?

Talking about it.

Did you know that more than 500 million people worldwide don’t have what they need to manage their periods safely, whether that’s clean water and toilets or menstrual health products like pads and tampons? Then there’s the pink tax – where products marketed toward women are more expensive than those marketed to men. Sometimes, people who have periods have to choose between buying menstrual health products and buying a meal.

That’s period poverty. That’s inequality. And that’s exactly what our Until We Are All Equal campaign is fighting to end. We believe that all girls and women have a right to talk about their periods and manage them safely.

This Menstrual Health Day, let’s dive deeper into what grandmothers, mothers and daughters talk about when they talk about periods.

Togo: too taboo to cook while menstruating

Assana, Gnoussiado and Akoyiki

Two women and one girl standing outside wearing colourful clothing and smiling at each other
Assana (centre) has disposable pads to manage her periods. But Akoyiki (left) and Gnoussiado (right) used pieces of cloth when they were younger.

“Like their mothers, girls on their periods were not allowed to prepare or serve food to their fathers,” recalls Akoyiki, 80, of Togo.

“In our time, a girl on her period could not be allowed to be seen by or interact with men, except for her husband,” adds her 60-year-old daughter, Gnoussiado.

But practices and attitudes are finally changing.

“We wear pants and bras,” says Akoyiki’s 24-year-old granddaughter, Assana. “Even during our periods, we are able to do any kind of activities without worrying too much.”

Why the change?

Projects like Strengthening Civil Society for the Realization of Children’s Rights, which Plan International runs in Togo and Benin, are working to end period stigma in communities and carry out practical changes like outfitting toilets to help manage menstrual health. For Assana’s generation, the difference is night and day.

From silence to empowerment: menstrual health in Nigeria

Rahamatu, Sakina and Rahamatu

Two women and one girl standing outside wearing colourful clothing and smiling at each other
The younger Rahamatu (right) feels confident talking about periods with her mum, Sakina (centre), which is very different from the culture of silence that her grandmother Rahamatu (left) faced when talking about periods.

Rahamatu, now 58, explains how menstruation used to be hidden, especially from fathers, who may not have understood and might even have blamed their daughters for doing something wrong.

For Rahamatu’s daughter, Sakina, the topic was equally taboo. “I couldn’t discuss my condition with anyone,” says Sakina, now 38. “We had to wash the cloth we used.”

But things are different for Sakina’s daughter, also named Rahamatu. After joining a peer-educator program run by Plan International, the 19-year-old feels like she can teach other girls, and even boys and adults, about periods.

“I’m much more confident talking about menstruation now,” she says. “My friends are excited too... When we got sanitary pads, everyone was happy. They’re easy to use and work better than what we had before.”

The younger Rahamatu’s learnings were sparked by Plan’s Menstrual Health Management project, an initiative that reached more than 14,000 people in northeast Nigeria. The project ran peer-education programs and set up sanitary-pad banks in 33 schools so girls could access disposable sanitary pads as needed, making it easier for them to stay in class – and in school.

Shattering menstrual stigma in Nepal

Tilki, Rita and Pushpa

Two women and one girl laughing with each other while sitting down and weaving baskets
Tilki (left) feels like she doesn’t need to teach her granddaughter Pushpa (centre) about periods the way she taught her daughter Rita (right), because Pushpa knows so much about periods already.

These days, Tilki, 67, and her daughter Rita, 35, in Nepal, can bond over the feelings of fear and shame that came with puberty.

“Concealing menstruation was nearly impossible, and we relied on makeshift pads made from old clothes,” Rita says. “Cleaning these pads often left stains, adding to the difficulty of managing our periods.”

Both women are thankful that Rita’s daughter, Pushpa, is having a different experience. As part of Plan International’s Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights project, Pushpa’s school now has a restroom and a health post where students can manage menstrual cramps, receive free pads and iron tablets, and participate in group discussions.

“I can openly acknowledge when I’m on my period and address any issues I may encounter,” the 16-year-old says with confidence.

Debunking period myths in El Salvador

Paz, Ana and Hazel

Two women sitting on purple chairs while a girl hugs them around the shoulders from behind
Hazel (back) says she felt confident talking about periods with her grandfather, while Paz (left) and Ana (right) can’t imagine it. When they were younger, talking about their periods was extremely taboo.

Growing up in El Salvador, Paz was raised on a steady diet of menstruation myths. “My mum used to tell me that when I had my period, I couldn’t go to the river, because the water would enter through the pores in my skin and that was bad. You couldn’t eat tomatoes, fish, eggs or lemon,” the 80-year-old grandmother says.

Paz didn’t know enough about periods to talk about them with her daughter Ana, now 47. For Ana, she also couldn’t share much about periods with her own daughter, Hazel.

Hazel, now 18, admits she was not “100% prepared” for her first period. But she made up for lost time by participating in the Power of Red Butterflies program. This Plan International initiative helps girls – and boys – learn about the menstrual process and issues around it, including sexual health and consent. Since it started in 2019, more than 1,000 people in El Salvador have benefitted from the program.

Embracing menstrual education in Burkina Faso

Marie, Aminata and Nassiratou

Two women and one teen girl wearing bright yellow clothing holding hands and smiling.
Things have changed since Marie (right) and Aminata (left) were young women. Now, Nassiratou (centre) can talk openly about periods without shame.

“When I was young, menstruation was considered dirty and repulsive,” explains Marie, 76, of Burkina Faso. “Women were isolated because they didn’t have access to suitable hygienic protection materials, so they couldn’t manage their menstruation properly. Imagine blood on hands, thighs...”

Her daughter Aminata, now 60, admits that she and Marie only talked about menstruation once: on the first day of Aminata’s first period. “In the past, our mothers gave us pieces of cloth to protect ourselves and that was it; we didn’t talk about it anymore,” Aminata says.

Things are much different for Aminata’s 18-year-old daughter, Nassiratou, who has participated in community awareness sessions to break taboos around menstruation. “Before, I was ashamed to talk about periods with my mother, but now I’m comfortable,” she says with a smile. “I can even talk about it with my grandmother!”

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