Somewhere in the world, a girl is starting to feel pain in her stomach. It’s unusual; she’s never felt it before. Later, she feels something strange in her underwear. Desperate, she searches for the nearest bathroom. She discovers her underwear is stained with blood. This is the day of her menarche, her first period. This is a scene that almost all women can identify with; after all, this was their story at some point in their lives. What differs with each woman's story, however, are the questions and thoughts that follow. “What is it? How am I going to clean up? Who am I going to tell? What will I use?”

Despair

For some girls, those are easy questions with clear answers. They were prepared for this day. So, they take a shower, call their mothers, and ask them for period products. They may be congratulated or told they have become a woman. They feel clean, safe, and protected. However, for many other girls, their first period can bring despair. That's how Adrienne in Togo felt when she realised she wasn't a child anymore.

"When I had my first period, I felt so uncomfortable and shocked. I didn't know anything about it, and I was ashamed of talking about it to anyone,” she says. “I wasn't bold enough to talk to my mum. She discovered it on her own because I was stressed, not moving from my seat, and taking constant baths."

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Adrienne from Togo. 

In Brazil, despair was also Maria Rita's reaction. She was just 12 when she had to figure out what was happening to her body. "When I had my first period, I thought I had cut myself, but I didn't know how. I used to hear people talking about periods at that time, but I didn't know what it meant. We didn't have pads at home that day, so I used some rags. I was disgusted with all the blood. I hated myself. I cried in the bathroom because I didn't want to be a girl anymore if I had to go through that,” says the 17-year-old.

In Sri Lanka, pads are considered a semi-luxury item, and in Malawi, a pack of pads is more than a full pay's day.

Many families would rather spend their money on food or other essential items than on “women's problems”. That's a reality that Adrienne experiences in her community in Togo. "On average, one packet of 10 period pads costs NZ $1.50. These are the lowest quality. For better quality period supplies, we pay about NZ $4.50. But many cannot afford them. They also do not have a toilet at home. As a result, many girls find it difficult to change and have privacy at home, which is especially difficult when they are on their period.

Stigma

In Brazil, culturally, girls are considered dirty as pigs when they menstruate. When Compassion centre director Wendy walks through her community in Honduras and visits families, she has witnessed how periods are still a taboo topic for most people. Some parents even refuse to buy period supplies for their girls, not because they cannot afford them, but because they think their daughters do not need them. This lack of information and education about puberty results in bigger problems, like a high level of teen pregnancy," says Wendy. In Brazil, girls like 17-year-old Maria Rita are reprimanded for participating in taboo behaviour when they are on the period. Even though many myths are no longer taken so seriously, they still permeate. They can be scolded for eating a slice of watermelon.

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Maria-Rita in her neighbourhood in Brazil. 

"Elders say that we cannot eat watermelon, pineapple, eggs, or drink milk when menstruating. Nor can we walk under the sun, pass under a lemon tree, or walk barefoot,” says Maria Rita. “They also say that we cannot ride any animal, like a horse, otherwise it will die, because our blood is rotten." A continent away from Maria Rita, Adrienne is dealing with a similar reality in Togo. In her culture, girls are prevented from doing a lot of activities when they have their period. "In our Kabye tribe culture, a menstruating woman is considered unclean and is not allowed to set her feet in some places considered sacred. Also, women on their periods should not cook for their husbands or fathers.

Stigma doesn't only impact girls’ social activities but their education. According to ActionAid, about 50 per cent of school-age girls do not have access to menstrual products in Kenya. In Rwanda, many girls miss up to 50 days of school or work every year because of period poverty and stigma. “It’s hard for some girls to buy their period supplies due to the lack of money. Because of that, they miss school exams if they can’t keep themselves clean and safe. Over time, some of them feel so discouraged that they abandon school,” says Jacqueline, a Compassion centre director in Togo.

Empowerment

The way to fight despair and stigma is with knowledge and empowerment. Monserrath's first period wasn't a big surprise for her because her mother and the centre volunteers had already discussed it. She knew exactly what to do when she saw blood on her underwear at school. When Adrienne thought the changes of becoming a woman would limit her, she found education, protection, and empowerment at her Compassion centre in Togo. "Two days after I got my first period, I went to the centre, and the centre volunteers talked to us about menstruation. At first, I was ashamed of talking about my period in public, but they counselled me on how to take care of myself, instructed me on hygiene practices, and bought period supplies for me. Then I understood I wasn't the only girl dealing with that. I never missed school for lack of period supplies because the centre always provided them,” she says.

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Monserrath from Honduras. 

In Maria Rita's centre in Brazil, volunteers support and educate girls about puberty. Because of the volunteer's support, Maria Rita started to see periods not as something to be ashamed of, but as a normal process in a girls' life. "I don't even know what I would be like if it weren't for the centre. “Whenever we need pads or other hygiene products, we know we can always come here and ask the centre’s volunteers.”

Freedom

Periods shouldn't be a red light for girls, stopping them from achieving their full potential. When a girl believes such lies, part of their dreams also dies. Supporting girls through the period challenges is also supporting their self-confidence, dreams, and future. When Adrienne could only see the limitations of becoming a woman, her centre helped her understand that neither poverty nor her period could stop her from becoming someone with a bright future. I feel so grateful for the centre. Without their support, I would have dropped out of school.

If Maria Rita once hated herself for being a girl, now she loves being an example for the young girls in the centre. "I don't feel embarrassed for who I am anymore. I love being a woman, and because of that, I want people to respect women. I'm against discrimination of any kind, and I'm always raising my voice to break taboos and misconceptions," she says.

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Adrienne with her friends. 

Somewhere in the world, a girl wakes in the morning knowing that day will be hard. She takes a shower, chooses her outfit, opens a package of sanitary pads, and put some of them in her bag. The day will be hard not just because of her period, but because she has an important exam at school and a football game in the afternoon. She knows life is hard, but being a woman cannot hold her back.

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