Humber grad working to end menstruation taboo

Many women still view talking about menstruation as a big taboo. (Photo by Jennifer Berry) Many women still view talking about menstruation as a big taboo. (Photo by Jennifer Berry)

Jennifer Berry
News Reporter

Britain’s number-one ranked woman tennis player Heather Watson’s frank comments about the “girl things” that led to her disappointing performance at this year’s Australian Open caused quite a stir.

She said one of the reasons she lost was because it was that time of the month.

Her predicament briefly pushed menstruation into mainstream conversation but for countless girls and women worldwide, the topic brings with it a stigma much more profound than making sure a tampon is safely concealed in a back pocket.

Humber graduate Sabrina Rubli is working to break down the taboo, particularly in developing countries, where menstruating girls can face not only shame and isolation, but also health issues and school absences due to misunderstanding and mismanagement of menstrual health.

And according to Rubli, the key is education.

“We came up with the idea to create an education-based approach that focuses on reproductive and menstrual health,” Rubli said.

Rubli co-founded a Toronto-based non-profit called Femme International in 2013 with former classmate Ella Marinic after graduating from Humber’s International Development post-graduate program.

While researching sanitation and washing programs in rural Kenya during their final months at Humber, Rubli and Marinic were struck by the absence of research and resources addressing the issue of menstrual health management and education.

“There’s a lot of evidence out there that says that menstruation is a huge barrier to young girls in developing countries and a huge need that’s just not being addressed,” said Rubli.

In addition to education, a critical component of their work is providing the Femme Kit.

After attending mandatory four-hour workshops, each participant is given a kit, which includes a bar of soap, a menstrual cup and a tin bowl for washing, leaving the young women with everything they need to hygienically manage their periods in their living conditions.

Femme International launched their program in Nairobi, Kenya, and recently expanded to Moshi, Tanzania.

In North America, women remain tight-lipped on their monthly menstruation, often opting to tough it out at school or work when affected by symptoms.

“Menstruation is definitely a taboo subject and that taboo exists here in Canada, absolutely,” said Rubli.

“In developing countries, you see it in the form of destructive and harmful traditions surrounding menstruation that prevent girls from doing certain things during their period, but here we see it where we don’t talk about it, we don’t address it, even though it’s something that’s completely natural,” she said.

Humber Early Childhood Education student Anna Ney YEAR AGE acknowledges there’s a cloak of silence around menstruation and agrees it’s time people start talking openly.

“I think that sometimes if you’re not feeling well enough to go into work or whatever, for me personally, I would say something different than what’s really going on,” Ney said.

Femme International’s latest focus is on expanding their program, having added boy’s health management to their agenda in fall 2014.

“It’s teaching boys about their own personal health, but also issues such as gender equality, consent, and menstruation because one of the big reasons why girls don’t go to school during their periods is because they get teased by the boys,” Rubli said.

Rubli will be taking part in the Health Challenges of Women and Children in Developing Countries panel today during Humber’s International Development Week. The panel takes place at the Lakeshore campus from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Femme International will also be hosting the third annual Red Panty Diaries on March 4 from 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. at Toronto’s Comedy Bar (945 Bloor Street West).