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."

Untitled-(660-x-415-px)-(1).jpg
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.

Untitled-(660-x-415-px)-(2).jpg
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.

Untitled-(660-x-415-px)-(3).jpg
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.

Untitled-(660-x-415-px).jpg
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.

Related posts

Haiti earthquake: to weep and to hope

Haiti earthquake: to weep and to hope

Wednesday, 08 September 2021 — Compassion International

As Haiti faces another devastating earthquake, Willow Welter from Compassion says, while it is time to weep with Haitians now, there is hope to rejoice as she reflects on what has been achieved by supporters since the last big earthquake occurred in 2010, which killed more than 200,000 people. With support, these communities will once again rise from the rubble and be able to rejoice again.
 

Read more

Four years on, we will not forget the Rohingya people

Four years on, we will not forget the Rohingya people

Wednesday, 25 August 2021 — Andrew Robinson

Today, August 25, marks four years since extreme violence and human rights atrocities erupted against the Rohingya people, forcing thousands to flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh. The Rohingya Refugee Crisis continues to this day, with over 880,000 refugees still living in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. We remember the Rohingya people today, and invite you to pray with us as you read our reflections on this crisis in this blog.
 

Read more

Kids around the world: My favourite foods

Kids around the world: My favourite foods

Friday, 20 August 2021 — Compassion International

We thought we’d ask some children who attend Compassion child development centres what their favourite foods to eat were. Here’s what they had to share.
 

Read more

Kiwi working to prevent human trafficking

Kiwi working to prevent human trafficking

Friday, 13 August 2021 — Keith Ramsay

Sean Hatwell’s experience as a detective fighting organised crime in New Zealand, took him to the streets and red-light districts of Thailand, working with Tearfund’s partner to disrupt trafficking rings peddling misery for victims of human trafficking.
 

Read more

A year on from the Beirut explosion, the effects are still being felt

A year on from the Beirut explosion, the effects are still being felt

Wednesday, 04 August 2021 — Tearfund New Zealand

Today marks one year since the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port in Lebanon killed more than 180 people. As one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, it left hundreds injured and hundreds of thousands of people homeless and unemployed. Your support enabled our local partner MERATH, a Christian NGO in Lebanon, to help thousands of vulnerable individuals and families. Here’s what we were able to do with your donation.
 

Read more

My three top tips to becoming an ethical fashion consumer

My three top tips to becoming an ethical fashion consumer

Monday, 02 August 2021 — Juliette Epstein

When it comes to ethical fashion, there’s always a bigger picture. Here are three things I have learnt since being an ethical fashion intern at Tearfund. I hope these tips will help you think about how and what you're consuming and that my journey will help yours!
 

Read more

Show more