Joseph Campbell, the great American scholar of mythology, referred to myths as metaphors that help guide people and give them a sense of connection or belonging. At their simplest level, myths are attempts to make sense of things. They’re also powerful forces for creating and maintaining cultural values, and many myths around menstruation have had negative consequences for women and girls.
But by understanding the power of myths, we can begin telling different stories capable of changing perspectives for the better. And happily, we already see examples of positive myths about menstruation replacing old ones.
The Myth of Negativity
While many period-related myths seem ludicrous, they have enabled attitudes that can lead to damaging behaviors, sometimes with very serious consequences for women.
In Bolivia, for example, UNICEF profiled a 13-year-old girl who said that when she got her period, she was inundated by her family and community with ill-informed superstitions. Like girls in many parts of the world, she had been told almost nothing reliable or useful about menstruation. Instead, she was told that touching cold water would cause blood clots, and that burning period supplies like pads or rags could cause cancer. Although absurd, these myths had very real consequences – causing feelings of shame and fear and even taking time out of school. Sadly, this UNICEF story is far from unique.
In India, myths have contributed to a culture of avoiding menstruation. Girls grow up hearing over and over that cooking while menstruating can poison the food or that touching a religious idol during one’s menses defiles it. Worse still, many myths are handed down from mothers to daughters, replacing real, vitally important health information with “myth-information,” and causing girls to enter puberty in fear and ignorance, rather than with excitement and pride.
Farther west, the idea of women being ritually unclean while menstruating is found in the Bible, where the Old Testament states that anyone who touches a woman during her period will be “unclean until evening.” In 690 AD, Bishop Theodore of Canterbury took this idea and ran with it, forbidding menstruating women from even visiting the English church.
Fortunately, this didn’t last. And finally, we’re seeing a wave of efforts from a wide variety of organizations seeking to dispel myths. In fact, in 2015 there were so many pop culture moments in the United States around the subject of menstruation that NPR dubbed it , “the year of the period.” And in 2016 Newsweek magazine declared that, “the fight to end period shaming is going mainstream.”
This year the movement picked up steam globally, with even more activists, inventors, politicians, start-up founders and everyday people working to strip the period of its stigma and ensure that public policy keeps up. People are recognizing myths around menstruation as a feminist issue and have begun talking about gender equality through the lens of destigmatizing periods. Gloria Steinem called it, “evidence of women taking their place as half the human race.”
India is now seeing the creation of new stories to replace old myths, and even new festivals consonant with Indian culture, but designed to encourage the spread of valuable, reliable information and help change attitudes. In 2012, WASH United , the nonprofit creator of Menstrual Hygiene Day, organized The Great Wash Yatra , a sanitation and hygiene festival that used songs, games and even Bollywood stars to spread facts about period management.
In our own programming, WomenStrong works to counter powerful myths with facts, truth and transparency. In Ghana, Kenya, India and Haiti, our Consortium members’ Girls’ Clubs teach reproductive health and share critical information on how to manage their periods. The result? Educated, confident girls who now know that menstruation is a natural process and an emblem of female power. Without periods, they understand, there’d be no human race. And that’s not a myth.
We sat down recently with our Ahila Devi from the DHAN Foundation in India and asked her to tell us about period myths in her country. Here’s what we heard.