When I was a teacher I had a special box in the bottom drawer of my desk. The 'Time Of the Month box' (TOM) was there for any student that might need it. It was filled with sanitary towels - specifically a mixture of normal and heavy flow pads, at the suggestion of my wife. One colleague, well-meaning, once suggested to me that this was a highly inappropriate thing for me to be doing. They were happy for a teacher to provide sanitary towels, just not for that teacher to be a man.
To my mind this approach to women’s health is dangerous, it becomes a secret, perhaps even shameful topic rather than something that all humanity can care about. When 51% of the world’s population will, at some point in their life have a period shouldn’t the other 49% be able to, at least, talk to them about it.
I remember being 10 years old during ‘puberty education’ and the girls all being led away into the library to discuss something ‘very secret and special only to them’. When I look back on this it feels almost medieval, as if the women were taking the girls off into the forest to teach them the secret spells of womanhood. Although of course, the girls were separated from us in this way because of the assumption that this would make them more comfortable, it reinforces, at a very young age, the myth that women’s health, and, in particular, reproductive health is not something that can or should be discussed in front of men. Instead of reinforcing this social taboo would it not be better to show young girls and boys that periods and women’s health, in general, is really just human health.
The taboo that exists around women’s health becomes even more worrying in a global context. In countries where a woman’s period cannot be discussed openly, menstruating women are often treated as unclean. In Afghanistan as many as 30% of girls report missing school during their periods - and who can blame them when schools do not have adequate hygiene facilities. In India, where sanitary towels are hidden away by shopkeepers and treated as shameful, is it any surprise that 23% of girls drop out of school when they get their period? These absurdities are only an extension of what was happening my primary school, by making women’s health issues something secretive you breed ignorance around them, and this ignorance harms women. It is not a coincidence that in cultures where women’s health issues are seen as shameful, that FGM is also prevalent.
The sad truth is that because we live in a male-dominated world; if women’s health concerns continue to be seen as something secretive then it is likely that women will continue to be disadvantaged. If men don’t talk about these issues, it is very easy to ignore them. The fact that sanitary towels and tampons are not exempt from UK VAT is symptomatic of a backward approach to women’s health. As a man, I had no idea that this was the case until I went to buy them for the TOM box. As soon as I found out I was appalled- these are not a luxury item. But because our political discourse is male dominated and this is not an issue that people want to talk about with men, it is unlikely to change.
The time has come to bring women’s health out of the shadows; to ensure that it’s a topic everyone understands and can talk about. If I ever have a daughter I hope that she will feel that she can talk to be about any health concerns she might have. I hope my wife, my mother, sister, and friends feel the same. Women’s health is just human health and we all need to talk about it. Period.