By Isabel Foxen Duke

I recently had the opportunity to visit the UN to hear expert panelists bring attention to a global health issue that, to be honest, I hadn’t heard much about in my four years of liberal arts education and my myriad hours reading women’s online publications since then.

I’m talking about puberty education — sitting boys and girls down in school and explaining to them what’s going to happen to their bodies as they move through adolescence and teaching them how to properly and safely manage these changes. (Think periods and wet dreams.)

Many young women, particularly those living in countries where any discussion of sex, sexual health, etc. is completely taboo, have no idea what’s happening to them when they get their first period — many believe they’ve fallen ill and/or are terrified that they are bleeding to death. Pretty traumatic stuff if you have no idea it’s coming.

Many are too embarrassed to discuss issues involving “that region,” and thus do not ask for guidance or help, often foregoing proper sanitation (think using dirty rags as pads) and may subsequently develop infections. Girls who do ask for help, are often given ignorant advice (“menstruation is what happens when girls have sex out of wedlock”), or are heavily shamed or hidden from social interaction. Self-esteem plummets in girls (about twice as much as it does for boys during this time), as they begin to see their bodies as a source of shame, rather than beauty or celebration.

To be fair, in many low-income countries, sanitation facilities (like running water), are so scarce that properly managing your period is a huge challenge even without the added element of shame and embarrassment, although that’s an entirely other conversation for another time.  

The focus of this particular conference, which was hosted by the “public-private partnership” between UNESCO and P&G (Owner of the Always brand of sanitary pads),  seemed most definitely to be about ending menstruation taboo in the developing world and educating girls about what’s happening to their bodies and “the best products for managing those changes.” The tone of the conversation clearly celebrated the role of private intervention in this public health issue, as one panelist said “the private sector can reach more people than the UN could ever dream of reaching.”

One of the most compelling problems associated with menstruation taboo are the very clear statistics correlating puberty in girls with school drop-out rates. In low and middle-income countries about 20% of girls drop out of school around the time of puberty for a variety of reasons, including fear of pregnancy, fear of bullying, and lack of sanitation facilities. 

That’s a lot of girls dropping out of school. Not cool. 

Obviously, the material implications of this are huge — from an economic standpoint, a gender equality standpoint, and a greater development standpoint in general.

It honestly did not occur to me what a severely important issue this is until some of these blaring statistics were brought to my attention. That being said, menstruation taboo will not be an easy one to reverse, as it is just one aspect of a greater culture of female oppression in the developing world (and the developed world, but again, another conversation for another time).

When the panel was asked the question, “how do you intend to address this taboo given  the thousands of years of oppression towards women that normalizes this behavior?” 

The majority answered by saying “slowly and carefully.”

“We have some previous experience addressing public health issues that are socially stigmatized in these countries (i.e. HIV / AIDS), and have had some success. We can look to our experience educating people about HIV/AIDS to inform how we discuss this culturally sensitive issue.”  

Ultimately, if governments, religious organizations, and other mandating institutions see the greater economic and cultural benefits to puberty education in schools, they may work with UNESCO to train teachers and school leaders appropriately.

Fingers crossed.

To learn more about the UNESCO / P&G partnership that is advocating puberty education in schools, click here.

Photography Credit: Jonathan Torgovnik

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