In most countries, there is a culture of taboo and secrecy around menstrual health and hygiene. Just think of all those ridiculous commercials for sanitary products that allow you to engage in activities ‘without anyone knowing’ you are menstruating – even if you are wearing white spandex or leaping in the air or whatever. Last year, a British company named Bodyform made this brilliant commercial to try and debunk some of the secrecy around ‘period talk’ but still, we persist in treating menstruation like a hush-hush taboo:
This doesn’t seem like such a big problem until we realize that menstrual supplies – and their lack – is a critical issue of dignity, mobility, and human rights for girls and women around the world.
Take the importance of menstrual supplies to girls’ education.
During a meeting for an upcoming TEDx event at Sarah Lawrence College, I was listening to a graduate student named Ellie Roscher describe a successful educational model in an impoverished slum outside Nairobi, Kenya. Run by a local man who wanted to make sure that girls from his community could get the same opportunities as boys, The Kibera Girls Soccer Academy understands the local pressures that keep girls from higher education, including the fact that a free education is not actually free. Families who chose to send their girls to school in deeply impoverished communities around the world are losing their labor – either in the form of outside income or domestic labor taking care of family members and cooking meals. At the very least, families have to pay for the food and supplies that their school-going children require.
And so, The Kibera Girls Soccer Academy not only provides the girls with what they need to study, but offers all students and teachers one meal every day, as well as sanitary supplies. This last fact may seem startling. Sanitary supplies? How can that be as important as pencils, or books, or a warm, nourishing meal? Yet, without sanitary products, girl students in the Global South are often prevented from leaving their homes and attending school. Why? Firstly, and most obviously, many women living in poverty cannot afford good quality products and make do with rags or other non-absorbent materials, such as bark or grasses.
But there are local initiatives addressing this problem. For instance, a project in the Amuru and Gulu regions of Uganda has students staying after school to make sanitary pads using cheap, readily available local materials. These absorbent pads can be washed and used again, and their availability has helped curb the rampant absenteeism from school that is common among adolescent girls during their menstrual periods. Another example is the sustainable health enterprise (the she28campaign), which is developing a franchise model to make and distribute ecologically-friendly sanitary products made from local materials like banana fronds.
Check out their terrific video:
I have heard, from a personal friend, about a female-run, locally owned sanitary pad factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh that does similar work. Due to shame and secrecy around menstruation in this community, women often wash out menstrual cloths quickly in the dark, incompletely drying them in hidden locations such as under thatched roofs, where the cloths might attract bugs or breed fungus. When the cloths are used again, women often develop gynecologic infections. The local factory has not only helped to change cultural taboos around menstruation, but has created vital sources for employment while providing women of the community clean, locally-produced sanitary supplies.
(In a related issue, after the much-publicized New Delhi rape case in the fall, there was this interesting article written about the connection between safe, private bathrooms for women in South Asia and the risk of rape and sexual violence.)
But the availability of sanitary supplies as a women’s human rights issue is not simply confined to the Global South. It is similarly an issue of justice among women who are incarcerated in the U.S. Due to budget cuts in California, for instance, prisons have rationed incarcerated women’s toothpaste and soap as well as sanitary supplies, leading women to engage in prostitution in exchange for basic hygiene goods. In other U.S. prisons, women must buy pads and tampons from the prison commissary. Women without outside friends or family who can send them cash have to do without. In one facility, women who got creative and made tampons with (also rationed) toilet paper had these items taken away. Three pads per month? Doesn’t seem adequate or hygienic to me.
Women and girls, whether in the Global North or South, whether incarcerated or not, have the right to move about in the world with dignity and hygiene. The lack of conversation around sanitary supplies as a women’s human right strikes me as part and parcel of the ‘hidden’ or ‘shameful’ stigma around menstruation. But unless we can talk about the fact that sanitary products are an essential part of women’s social justice, how can we act on it?
No more hiding in the shadows. No more leaping through euphemistic meadows.
Girls and women need access to sanitary goods. People of all genders need to talk about and deal with menstruation and women’s embodied issues without shame.
For more information visit the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research: www.menstruationresearch.org
Image courtesy of IRIN, a service of the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.