Ask an Activist: How Can Boys and Men Advocate for Menstrual Health?

Author: Leah Rodriguez

Courtesy of Appiah Boakye

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Lack of access to menstrual hygiene management is a major roadblock to achieving several Global Goals, including Goal 6 (clean water and sanitation), Goal 3 (good health and well-being), and Goal 4 (quality education). Ensuring all people who menstruate have access to menstrual health is key to ending extreme poverty by 2030. You can join us and take action on this issue here

Menstruation is a normal process that half the population experiences, yet it is widely misunderstood. Taboos and stigma attached to menstruation create silence around the topic and contribute to a lack of resources for people who menstruate to manage their periods safely and with dignity.

We're asking Global Citizens via our Facebook group what questions they want answered, and one big question we know people might have had in the past is what they, as boys and men, can do to advocate for menstrual health. 

Appiah Boakye, West Africa director of the organization Days for Girls International, is based in Ghana and has a lot of experience working at the grassroots level with menstrual health. She sees firsthand the importance of menstrual health education to help shift the negative stigma that often surrounds menstruation. 

“Around the world, we take for granted menstruation,” Boakye told Global Citizen. “It's not a topic that is talked about and it's quite unfortunate.

“Not only do the girls need to receive education, but the boys also need to understand what's going on with the girls, [and] what's going on with their bodies. A lot of times they are not properly educated.” 

Men don’t always have the language to talk about menstruation openly, Boakye said.

“A lot of times, it’s [a] misconception. The boys feel as if menstruation is dirty, because traditionally, maybe they learned in their community that menstruation was dirty, and so they don't know that it's not.”

Read More: Period Poverty: Everything You Need to Know

Harmful myths about menstruation permeate every corner of the world. In Ghana, Boakye has heard men and boys say women who are menstruating shouldn’t prepare food because they’re impure. Certain communities in the country think if someone is menstruating and crosses over certain rivers, the land will no longer be fruitful. 

Often boys and girls learn about menstruation from their peers and friends. In a small survey the organization Hey Girls conducted with 1,500 British men, 40% said they had never been taught about periods in school. 

The misinformation boys and men hear can lead people who menstruate to manage their periods unsafely, by using unhealthy substitutes to period products, like reusing disposables or resorting to rags or items they find around the house like t-shirts, Boakye said. If they can’t afford to buy products, in some extreme cases they might put themselves in a compromising situation like exchanging sex for period products.

When people who menstruate don’t have the resources and information to manage their periods safely, they are more likely to miss school and work, face higher health risks, and struggle to reach their full potential. Educating girls before their first period, and boys on menstruation overall, “builds confidence, contributes to social solidarity, and encourages healthy habits,” according to UNICEF. Including men and boys in the long-term menstruation conversation helps dispel misconceptions and prepares them to become supportive brothers, partners, and fathers. 

Days for Girls employs several male trainers in their programs who address the role boys and men play in menstrual health and develop an awareness that their actions could have negative effects. 

“We've found that in schools that have educated boys, you will see a girl stain her uniform and the boy will get up [and] give his sweatshirt to her, so she can wrap it around her uniform and escort her out,” Boakye said. “Or the boy may run to the nearest store and go and buy her sanitary pads.”

Days for Girls aims to shift how menstruation is discussed, as well as uplift people who menstruate and have them appreciate menstruation. Boakye shared a few specific ways boys and men can be a part of the process. 

“I would say the first step is to get educated, because without that you can't really move forward,” she said. “You've got to go and educate yourself, if that's on the internet or if that's through some sort of community resource, whether it is [with] the Days for Girls “Men Who Know” curriculum, which is available online for free, doing [your] own independent research, or connecting with the community organization that focuses on outreach and awareness.”

Reading materials are available at local health centers, but asking to speak to a clinician about menstruation is an option, too. On the school level, boys can look into health clubs or advocacy groups that might facilitate discussions about menstruation. 

Not all boys and men are going to feel equipped to speak menstruation all of the time, Boakye pointed out, and that’s OK.

“If your daughter is about to menstruate, there's nothing wrong with setting her to the side and having a conversation about what's about to happen,” she said. “Or, if you don't feel comfortable with that, you can connect her] with a school counselor or a teacher or the mom or someone who the girl can confide in. Men and boys can be connectors like that if they themselves don't feel comfortable.”

Boakye also encourages community leaders to set up educational sessions to discuss menstruation in safe spaces. 

“Let's continue to create a space [where] people feel supported and confident,” she said. 

"Ask an Activist" is a new series that aims to answer frequently asked questions on topics related to Global Citizen's core issues and campaign areas. The series features activists working in global health, environment, gender equality, and more. You can join us in taking action here. Have a question for an activist? Join our Facebook group here to submit your question.