Breaking the taboo on menstruation

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Who has never hidden their tampon when going to the toilet? Who hasn’t suffered from a silent stomach ache or lowered their voice to ask some girlfriend for a pad? Menstruation is something that occupies a large part of our lives, but we don’t talk about it enough. On average, we spend 2200 days menstruating, spill 22 litres of menstrual blood and spend over 4400 CHF1 in a lifetime! So why is it still a big taboo today?

In many countries, menstruation is still considered dirty, shameful and even impure. Too many girls are still deprived of school or social interactions during their periods2. Even if this is not the case in Switzerland, this subject is still not discussed enough in our social circles. Indeed, it is still too rare to hear a woman say out loud that she is menstruating, especially if men are present. And yet it is something that impacts our lives on a daily basis: between pain, fatigue and fluctuating moods, there is plenty to complain about.

I’m in favour of talking about our periods like we talk about the weather. Why? Because too many of us still have to learn « on the job » how to put in a tampon or to recognise all the symptoms that accompany menstruations, i.e. pain, swelling of the breasts, of the stomach, moods and changing stools. We often discover with astonishment the colour and texture of menstrual blood on the first day it happens to us. And no, Kevin, it’s not exactly the same blood as when you cut your finger. We don’t necessarily know that periods are often misnamed because they take time to become periodic, if they ever do. Personally, the first time I studied the menstrual cycle in biology class was in high school, much later than the day I got my first period. Unfortunately, my teacher didn’t have a uterus himself, so I didn’t learn only true things… When you’re told that your period should last between 2 and 4 days while yours lasts a week, you inevitably wonder if you’re « normal » (spoiler alert: yes you are).

I want this taboo to be lifted because we learn far too late, if at all, that suffering to the point of not being able to get out of bed is not normal and that such pain often has a pathological cause. Endometriosis, for example, a disease that is still not well known, is thought to affect about one in ten women4. We are not told of the existence of premenstrual syndromei either until we have experienced it, although it affects between 80 to 90% of us! Its severe form, premenstrual dysphoric disorder3, for which there are treatments, is even less discussed. No, being in a depressed state two weeks a month is not « normal ». We trivialise period pains by saying that it is normal for a woman to be in pain or to be in a bad mood, but at the same time we underestimate them by not taking seriously a person who needs time off work at this time, for example.

I want this taboo to fall because it prevents the public debate from moving forward on the issue of menstrual precariousness. This phenomenon, which has not yet been quantified in Switzerland, affects around 6 to 10% of young girls according to the Vaud State Councillor Cesla Amarelle5,ii . And yes, menstruation is expensive and costly! Menstrual pads, taxed at 7.7%, are not yet considered as basic necessities, unlike cat litter which is taxed at 2.5%. No, putting a sanitary napkin instead of toilet paper or newspaper in your panties is not a luxury Jean-Michel. We don’t pay for toilet paper in public toilets, so why don’t we have the same access to menstrual protection, which is just as necessary as toilet paper?

I want to lift this taboo because it is the taboo that allows manufacturers not to indicate the composition of their products. Because yes, in addition to being expensive, they are dangerous for our health. Putting a piece of cotton soaked in a whole bunch of pesticides and other endocrine disruptors in the vagina is not harmless. Unfortunately, as students and in precarious situations, it is often impossible to turn to less dangerous and more sustainable solutions. Because above all, disposable menstrual protection is an ecological disaster with the amount of waste it generates. Replacing them with less harmful or reusable products such as cups, washable pads or menstrual panties is hardly feasible on a limited budget, although in the long run it would indeed be a more economical solution.

For all these reasons, it is important to break the taboo on menstruation. It is important to make menstrual protection available free of charge to a maximum number of people, starting with students and people in precarious situations. Like Scotland, the first country to have made menstrual protection free in public buildings, schools and universities; in Switzerland several French-speaking cantons, including Jura, Vaud and Geneva, are starting to make it available in public schools. At EPFL, even if it is still thanks to your donations and the Polyquity budget that we manage to supply the Solidary Period boxes, another project of self-service menstrual products in the toilets, financed by the school, is underway and will see the light of day, I hope, during the course of the next year.

  1. Le coût des menstruations et comment réduire la facture. (2020).
  2. #MenstruationMatters : vaincre le tabou des règles | Caritas Suisse. CARITAS .
  3. Netgen. Le trouble dysphorique prémenstruel : diagnostic et stratégie thérapeutique. Revue Médicale Suisse .
  4. Endométriose. Inserm – La science pour la santé.
  5. Cesla Amarelle: ‘Entre 6% et 10% des jeunes filles sont touchées par la précarité menstruelle’. (2021).

Written by Anissa Hammi

Banner-image:Pauline Makoveitchoux

i The Instagram account @spmtamere collects testimonies on the premenstural syndrom or PMS
ii This figure also corresponds to results of surveys we have undergone with EPFL students. In octobre 2019, amongg 321 people surveyed, 9% declared they already had to give up on buying menstrual products in order to buy food, or gave up buying essential goods in order to afford menstrual products. In March 2021, 19% of 338 people surveyed said they had already hesitated to buy or steal menstrual protections, had already given up buying it or given up buying another product due to a limited budget.




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