Laugh not, my friends. May 28 has officially been declared Menstrual Hygiene Day, and it’s right around the corner.

It’s a day to remember the excitement and panic of your first period—and the more than 800 million women between the ages of 15 and 49 that are doing that taboo ‘thing’: menstruating.

To mark this one-of-a-kind day, WaterAid collected a handful of myths from around the world that still surround girls’ and their periods. Because for girls and women living without safe water and private toilets, there’s a whole lot more to overcome than a leak through those white jeans.

1.    Bathe or shower, and you’ll get sick. (Nearly worldwide)

2.    Burn or bury your menstrual pads and you’ll have your period constantly, forever. (Common in Afghanistan)

3.    Touch a plant and it will dry out. (Common in parts of East Africa)

4.    Look in a mirror and it will lose its brightness. (Dating to Roman times. As written by philosopher Pliny the Elder, this belief persisted in Europe for centuries and is still found in parts of East Africa.)

5.    Touch milk and it will curdle. (Also among Pliny the Elder’s gems, and still a belief in parts of Africa and India)

6.    Touch a cow and it will become infertile. (Common in parts of India)

7.    Consume cold food or drinks and your cramps will get worse. (Versions circulate from Russia, to the Middle East and China)

8.    Cut your hair or nails during your period and they’ll be damaged. (Still common in many countries, including in India where girls won’t polish their nails either, believing it won’t stick.)

9.    Cook or attend temple while you’re on your period and your ‘uncleanliness’ will spread (Linders in some Hindu areas; Shinto temples in Japan also had traditional limits to menstruating women, those these are now rarely enforced.)

10. And last but not least… Your period has magical powers. (Another classic from Pliny the Elder, who said exposing period blood to lightning flashes would drive away hailstorms and whirlwinds. Today in Suriname, period blood is still thought to help a woman impose her will on a man — and to make a woman more susceptible to black magic. In Sierra Leone, used napkins are thought to make others infertile.)

I, for one, love the idea of my period having magical powers of a certain kind. But let’s be honest: for the 1 in 3 women and girls worldwide living without access to toilets and sanitation, ‘that time of the month’ is no laughing matter.

Here’s why:

• UNESCO estimates that as many as 1 in 10 girls in Africa miss school when they’re on their period, leading to higher school drop out rates.

• Nearly 71% of girls in India had no idea what was happening to them when they had their period for the first time.

• One school study in Ethiopia reported that over 50% of girls missed between one and four days of school each month when Aunt Flo came to visit.

• A factory case study in Bangladesh showed that 60% of female workers used rags from the factory floor as pads. This resulted in infections that caused 73% of the workforce to miss work for as many as 6 days per month.

Outraged? Me too.

I believe that women have the right to manage their periods safely. Without safe water and toilets, women’s health suffers and they are subjected to the humiliation of trying to find somewhere private to take care of themselves.

That’s why my WaterAid colleagues and I work in some of the world’s poorest communities to change this. With help from local partners, we’re addressing the taboos surrounding menstruation by teaching women and their families how to manage their periods, make safe, reusable sanitary pads and build separate toilets and taps for girls in schools.

This May 28, join me in standing up for strong girls on Menstrual Hygiene Day, and everyday.

Written by Alanna Imbach


Defeat Poverty

10 bogus beliefs about Aunt Flo and why they matter