Blood and guts

It was in year 9, when we were 13 or 14 years old, that the "periods" lesson happened. Our science teacher, Mrs Hull, with her mesmerising pudding-basin haircut of silver and grey, produced a tampon from her bag, unwrapped it and placed it in a glass beaker of water on the front bench.

In the 55 minutes that followed we copied graphs from the blackboard and wrote down phrases like "luteal phase" "developing follicle" and "sloughed-off lining". Meanwhile, the tampon, previously of such modest proportions, bloated and bloomed in the beaker until it pressed against the sides like an alien species threatening to colonise lab 3. I haven't used a tampon since. But I'm sure that wasn't Mrs Hull’s aim, nor is it my point.

Just like Rose George, author of this Mosaic piece, I grew up in the UK. I was lucky enough to have family, friends and teachers who were open and supportive about periods. At some point early in secondary school I was given a small, pink paper diary in which I could not only circle the days I had my period – thus keeping a record of "my cycle" – but also enjoy stylised pastel sketches of a pre-teen girl lounging in polo neck and ankle warmers as she petted a dog, listened to music and, gasp, went swimming. Exercise may even ease menstrual cramps.

This couldn’t be further from the experiences of many of the women and girls Rose met on her reporting trip to Nepal and Bangladesh. In both the main feature and the Extra about sanitary protection, the women interviewed admitted being forced to use some eye-watering things to try and soak up their menstrual blood, things like cloths, twigs, leaves, ash, feathers and animal skin.

In the five-minute walk between the underground station and my office there are at least four places I could buy sanitary products: towels, tampons, cups, liners, with wings, without wings, with applicator, without applicator, normal, maxi, ultra, slim, string, regular, super, freshness regular, fresh super, super plus, compak super plus, lites, goodnight, dailies, deofresh, discreet, flexistyle, infinity. The list goes on. There's an embarrassment of sanitary protection riches.

For the Nepali women and girls living under chhaupadi – the practice of separating menstruating females from other people – the lack of hygienic sanitary pads is only one of their problems. Whilst they’re bleeding they are required to live separately from their families, often in bare, basic sheds, exposed to the threats of both bad weather and attacks from animals or humans.

If I tell a colleague I have period pains, they're likely to say something sympathetic and then dip into their desk drawer for painkillers. When the women of this part of Nepal have their period, they're not permitted to touch another person, let alone worship, do chores or cook.

Taboos and rituals around menstruation, such as chhaupadi, hold back girls' educations and women's careers and put their reproductive health and personal safety at risk. So why aren’t we talking about them more? It can be hard to report, write or read stories like these. Sometimes our automatic reactions of disgust or discomfort make us want to look away. But a big part of the reason that Mosaic is tackling stories about things like menstrual taboos, the reinvention of the female condom or the emergence of faecal transplants is because the most difficult stories can also be the most important ones.

Imagine if for a week every month you were prevented from sleeping in your own house, going to work and even touching other people because of something you had no control over, a result of the biology of the body you were born with.

Imagine that you cannot persuade your partner to use male condoms, and you’re worried that he may have a sexually transmitted infection. What if there were some other device you could use to protect yourself, without having to rely on him?

Imagine being so ill that you’re willing to swallow or have inserted into your rectum somebody else’s poo, in the hope that it will stop your symptoms or even save your life.

Thankfully, most of us won’t ever have to face these scenarios, but it’s because of reporters like Emily Anthes, Rose George and Bryn Nelson that we can all take a few steps in some other people's shoes. And in the process, hopefully we'll understand a little more about what life is like in places and situations we may never experience, for people we would never otherwise meet.

Chrissie Giles

Chrissie Giles is a Commissioning Editor at Mosaic.