In female health, the menstrual cycle is considered a vital sign, an important indicator of health and wellness. Yet, many people never receive adequate menstrual health education – or even have access to things like period products and safe places that allow them to manage their periods with dignity. Around the globe, menstruation is a topic cloaked in taboo which has prevented generations of people from living their healthiest lives and achieving their fullest potential.
Early in my career as a gynecologist, I was alarmed by the number of adult women with reproductive health problems that could have been prevented, or managed sooner, had they understood their symptoms were not normal. I was alarmed by the number of women who had trouble even talking about their body and menstruation because they had been silenced by a longstanding culture of shame and stigma. I saw few patients who had received accurate and empowering education about their own reproductive system. That meant I cared for a lot of girls and women whose lives had been altered, sometimes hindered, by stigma, myths, and misinformation about something as normal as periods.
As an Ob-Gyn, I realized we would never improve women’s health unless we started with girls’ health, so I co-founded Girlology and later, the Period Education Project with the mission to improve access to medically accurate health education for young people. After nearly two decades working with girls and their caring adults across the globe, I have seen first-hand how accurate and honest education changes lives and shifts cultural biases.
When young people of all genders have access to period education, their curiosities are satisfied, and the stigma begins to disappear. They are not ashamed to ask questions or talk about menstruation; they have a better understanding of what’s normal or not; and they are less likely to dismiss or ignore symptoms that might signal something more serious, such as endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, or blood clotting disorders. For those who menstruate and get this education, they experience less anxiety and are better prepared to advocate for their health and their hygiene needs. Period education literally improves future health and wellness.
Unfortunately, this historic lack of education and the stigma it perpetuates have contributed to other issues, like the lack of access to period products for so many around the world, known as period poverty. Until recently, this issue was rarely talked about. If society, and our decision makers, don’t understand periods and what challenges they bring, they can’t begin to discuss the solutions.
I’m encouraged to see things starting to change. Over the past five years, there has been increasing attention and advocacy around menstrual health, and we’ve made great strides in reducing period stigma, improving access to period products, and creating policies that recognize hygienic and safe spaces for menstrual management are a matter of dignity and a right for all who menstruate. I’m proud to partner with the Always brand as they have taken a lead role in helping drive this change. They empower young people globally through puberty education and confidence programs that are medically accurate and address the universal concerns of young people learning about menstruation and growing up. Since they began their 2018 campaign to end period poverty, they have also donated over 140 million products and sponsored numerous events to raise awareness and engage policymakers.
But there is still much work to do, and my greatest hope and inspiration lies in the involvement of youth. I am particularly excited to know that Girl Up is helping so many young people lead us into a new era of gender and menstrual equality. I look forward to watching Girl Up’s young leaders help the world dismantle the stigma of menstruation and replace that with the awareness that menstruation is something important to understand for health, important to honor as normal, and vital to humankind.