This is a series of posts in partnership with PERIOD.org for National Period Day.
Growing up as a young girl in a privileged community in Brazil, I always heard that getting your period for the first time is a special moment, because it means you’ve now become a woman. All my friends looked forward to it – we were anxious to learn which one would be next in our friend group to "enter adulthood." Girls all around the world have different stories, and some of them are not even close to cute: Alinafe, from Malawi, was locked in her house for seven days when she got her first period, and was told to wear rags so she wouldn't shame her family.
The idea of starting this new phase of my life was always associated with this transition to adult life, a very different concept compared to Alinafe's societal perception. This gap in menstrual health rights between girls from different communities is something that needs to be addressed urgently, without stigma.
Of course, I did not know too much about menstruation as a kid, but I was able to get the information I needed – at least the mainstream part of it – as a teenager. I knew that once I got my first period, I buy a pack of pads at the drugstore, and then go back to school.
What I had no idea about until just a few years ago, however, is that some girls do not even have access to the basic products that women need during their cycle, whether they are pads, tampons, menstrual cups, or even period panties. Having always lived with access to these products and resources, I was not aware of the struggles girls around the world, especially in the poorer countries of the Global South, face when it comes to getting your period every single month.
Sanitation is an integral right of every human being, and for women and girls, lack of access to a private toilet makes their menstrual cycles a lot more challenging than they have to be. According to UN Women, 1.2 billion women and girls do not have access to a safe toilet, and 526 million don't even have a toilet to use.
While I've heard people around me laugh at the idea of the World Toilet Day (November 19th), an official United Nations day that tackles the global sanitation crisis, young girls all across the Global South have stopped attending school because of the stigmatization that comes with getting your period - and not having any hygiene supplies to go through their menstrual cycle.
If we are serious about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, including Goal 5, Gender Equality, we have to work to close the gender gaps in every way we can, and that includes talking about periods, even if that can seem a little uncomfortable. Just because some people and cultures still categorize menstruation as a taboo in modern society, it does not mean that women and girls should not have full access to menstrual products.
When girls have a decent sanitation infrastructure and supplies in their house, school and community to change and dispose of menstrual products, they are healthy and more confident to excel. Therefore, empowering young women to be the global leaders they can be when they grow up and achieve their full potential is directly related to the successful management of their menstrual hygiene needs.
The World Toilet Day campaign created the Toilet Privilege Race, an eye-opening quiz about your access to hygiene in comparison to people around the world. They ask this very simple yet impactful question: do you take your toilet for granted? On National Period Day, I encourage you to consider menstrual health as a public health and human rights issue. Ask yourself: do you take your menstrual health for granted? If your answer is yes, use your privilege to end the period stigma and raise your voice for those girls who cannot give a positive answer just yet.