First menstruation is often accompanied by fear, shame, lack of information, women and girls in Arab states reveal

Even talking about menstruation is considered taboo or embarrassing, many women told UNFPA. © UNFPA Somalia
  • 28 May 2021

UNITED NATIONS, Cairo – “I felt ashamed of my body. I did not know how to clean it or how to take care of it. I did not understand the purpose of my menstrual cycle because I did not receive any sexual health information at that age,” one young woman from Palestine, recalling her first period at age 12. “I felt heavy and helpless at that time every month, for years to follow. It wasn't until very much later, when I was in my twenties, that things seemed to make more sense.”

This woman’s experience is all too common across the Arab states region.

A recent informal online survey conducted by UNFPA yielded 69 responses from across the region. Of these, 24 respondents said they had received no information about menstruation prior to experiencing their first period. Twenty-seven had learned about menstruation from their mother or another family member, eight learned from friends, and only seven had learned about menstruation from a teacher. Three learned about it from books or other sources.

Of the 69 respondents, 54 said their reaction to menstruating for the first time was shame, fear, anxiety or embarrassment. 

Some said they faced stigma and mistreatment.

An adolescent girl wearing a blue sweater speaks to a health worker wearing scrubs, a face mask and a hair covering.
An adolescent girl speaks to a staff member from a mobile medical team in Syria. Adolescents should receive factual and shame-free information about menstruation. © UNFPA Syria

“I told my mother. She gave me an old piece of cloth and refused to buy me sanitary napkins and forbade me from eating dinner that night,” said one woman in Morocco, who began menstruating at age 12. “She gave me soup that I ate alone. I felt I was an outcast. My period every month became an unbearable hell.”

She described sneering looks from her brothers, and said she struggled with physical pain: “I was overwhelmed with chores in the home, as well as my studies. My mother deprived me of rest and forced me to do all the housework without medicines or a visit to the doctor.”

Listening to real experiences

Menstruation is a biological fact of life for billions of people around the world. Yet misinformation, denial of information, stigma and discrimination can turn this natural process into needless physical, emotional and economic hardship. 

The informal survey – which was not intended to be a representative study but rather to collect women’s experiences in their own words – showed that women and girls in many countries of the region are often denied the right to manage their monthly menstrual cycle in a dignified and healthy way.

The respondents came from Algeria, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Their overwhelmingly negative first experiences with menstruation show how much needs to change to ensure the rights and dignity of girls.

“My mother got married at an early age, and even now she doesn't even know the basics of the cycle and does not want to learn,” said one woman in Saudi Arabia.

Without accurate and shame-free information about their bodies, many girls described improvising ways to manage menstrual blood.

“I always used cotton cloths,” one girl from Yemen said. “I come from an uneducated family so I did not know that there were sanitary towels used for this purpose.”

“I used to use old clothes as sanitary napkins,” one woman in Saudi Arabia said. “When my clothes started to run out and my mother and sister discovered that I used clothes,  they laughed at me without offering me an alternative.”

A woman in a niqab holds a baby on one side and carries a yellow dignity kit on the other.
A woman displaced by conflict in Taiz, Yemen, receives a dignity kit. These kits containe essential hygiene supplies, including menstrual pads, soap and underwear.  © UNFPA Yemen

“Live your life”

Managing one’s period is even more difficult in humanitarian settings. Privacy can be scarce and sanitation facilities are often lacking. In refugee and displacement camps, or other emergency settings, toilets and bathing facilities may be unsafe, even exposing women to sexual assault. 

Economic hardship also affects access to menstrual health and hygiene supplies, limiting women’s and girls’ mobility, restricting their attendance in schools and participation in community life, compromising their health and diminishing their contribution to the economy. 

In humanitarian crises, UNFPA distributes dignity kits containing hygiene supplies such as washing powder, reusable and disposable sanitary napkins and underwear. UNFPA also works to improve education and information about menstruation and related human rights concerns. For example, through youth empowerment programmes and comprehensive sexuality education efforts, UNFPA raises awareness that menstruation is healthy and normal. UNFPA also works to dispel the widely held myth that menstruation indicates readiness to marry or bear children.

Survey respondents said that this was the kind of information they wish they’d had. 

"You see people exaggerating it and treating you as ‘a woman’ only because you have reached the stage of sexual maturity,” one woman in Iraq wrote.

She offered this advice to young girls facing these pressures: “Don't care and live your life. There's no need to feel shy or shame…. It's a superb natural biological process.”

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