Some of my friends started calling me the Period Girl … I like being called a Period Activist, or Menstrual Activist. The question you might be asking yourself is “why do periods need activists and what have periods got to do with gender equality?”
What we will be discussing in this article are issues related to Menstrual Health Management, or Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM henceforth), their impact on girls’ education, and how social stigma and cultural restrictions around menstruation can affect the health and well-being of women and girls, and therefore, gender equality.
Girls Missing out 25% of their education. An average of one week every month. Why?
In low-income communities, the situation is very alarming. Poverty, in addition to the secrecy culture and myths, have put women and girls in situations where they have no other alternative than using unsafe and unhygienic absorbing materials, such as rags, cloths, newspapers, leaves, etc… In many cases, the shame of bleeding and the stigma around menstruation, prevent them from going to school.
In a study conducted in a school located in a rural area of Pune, India, counting 740 adolescent girls; 269 girls (43.2%) were found absent from school during their menstruation period.
“School absenteeism was significantly associated with menstrual disorders, socio economic status, material used during menstruation and abdominal pain during menstruation. Nearly 339 (54.5%) of rural girls bring pads/cloths to schools during menstruation while 283 (45.5%) do not bring pads/cloths to schools due to inadequate sanitation facilities.” (Bodat, et al. 2013)
Even when the facilities do exist, many girls do not use them. In Kapilvastu and Arghakhanchi, Nepal, a study has shown that none of the 20 girls interviewed were aware of information and support services. “The most important reasons identified for not utilizing the services were social stigma, lack of information, service quality and service provider behavior” (Khanal, 2016).
In 2011 in Kenya, the government has acknowledged the dramatic situations that female students and teachers were pushed into because of the lack of affordable sanitary towels and poor sanitary facilities at schools. In response, they have allocated $3.4 million from the fiscal budget to provide free sanitary pads in schools. This initiative proved to be unsustainable when the government had to cut the budget allocation by $1 million in 2014 (Mugambi & Georgas, 2016).
The following testimonies of women in refugee camps, documented by Newman (2016) are among the most shocking ones: Christine had her dress stained at school, and used leaves. Her male teachers benefited from her vulnerable situation, she says, “they gave me money for sex to get pads. Life was hard. Even my close relatives could rape me now”. She got pregnant at the age of 14 and had to drop out of school. Another woman stated: “In the villages we had freedom and space to dry the rags outside the huts. Here [in the camp] we have no privacy to dry the rags, we are forced to hang them in the house. We also have to wait until evening to wash the rags.”
In 2014, a social entrepreneur, Lotfi Hamadi, found out that girls in some Tunisian dorms pulled out mattress foam to use it as an absorbent. In collaboration with EcoLibree, he set up a social business of reusable sanitary towels, especially after discovering that many girls could not afford sanitary pads. They had to use cloths, others were unfortunate to have their periods during Exams Week. They had no other choice than to miss school, and fail their exams.
There are more than 3.5 billion females on the planet, which represents half of the world’s population. According to the Persistence Market Research (2016), the global feminine hygiene market was valued at US$ 19 Bn in 2015” that is equivalent to the GDP of Zimbabwe or Guatemala and “is expected to reach US$ 35.2 Bn by 2024″ which is equivalent to the GDP of the 30 poorest countries in the world.This industry is dominated by corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Edgewell Personal Care, Kimberly-Clark Worldwide, Inc. (PMR, 2016), disputing the global market and making of pads and tampons luxury products which are not exempt from the tax in many of so-called developed countries. As a result, more than 40 million women in the United States living in poverty are unable to afford MHM products.
The reality for homeless women in the US and UK with regards to access to clean public toilets and affordable general hygiene products is inhuman and horrifying. Who amongst you have ever thought of donating sanitary towels and tampons to a homeless shelter and charity? Other examples of this outrageous situation, are US prisons. A study investigating health issues of incarcerated women in the United States has shown that menstrual cycle problems represent 53% of the most common reasons for medical admission which “makes the provision of health care more complicated for women than for men” (Mignon, 2016). In Brazil it was reported that incarcerated women “use bread to stanch menstrual bleeding” (Economist, 2014). You can imagine that these cases are not isolated and unique to these countries.
Gender inequality is a fact that cannot be denied and that is well-documented worldwide with rare exceptions.
Research have shown that there is a strong correlation between gender inequality and poor women’s health and well-being. You can find out here the Gender Inequality Index (GII) of your country as measured by the United Nations between 2005-2014. The GII reflects inequality in achievement between women and men in three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment, and the labour market.
In fact, gender inequality is experienced everyday. It is reflected in the behaviours of both men and women, reinforcing a patriarchal discourse. This can be exemplified in certain societies, in the subconscious thoughts of wishing to give birth to a boy over a girl, doubting a woman in decision-making position solely based on her gender, or systematically asking what a woman was wearing following a sexual assault.
The aim here is not to generalise or to assign negative connotations to the concept of patriarchy because the controversy would apply equally to matriarchal societies, but rather to denounce distorted societal organisations.
Why is it a taboo?
Examples of the inherent and implicit gender inequality can be observed in communities where, from an early age, boys are raised to believe that they are superior to their female counterparts. In many households, they are unconsciously made aware that society will be indulgent to them in case of excessive behaviour, on the only basis of their gender. On the other hand, girls and women are presented with a narrower scope of perspective. This reality is constructed through expressions such as “girls don’t do that“, “a man stays a man“, “she wants to pee standing like a man“, and the list goes on. Even more dangerous than the language, is the normalisation of such beliefs by saying “it’s always been like this “, “it’s no big deal“, “ it’s just a joke“.
Such language is not reproduced only by males. Women constitute the most powerful entity sustaining the status-quo, ensuring the survival of traditions and customs, especially with regards to politeness codes, male-female power relations, gender roles, in addition to defining space. By the latter, I mean that female family members and friends are more likely to be the ones telling you which places you can go to and which ones you can’t.
In addition to suffering from humiliation and bullying, which negatively impact one’s well-being, many girls don’t feel safe enough discussing their periods with their parents. At school, the topic is unfortunately not taken very seriously, as teachers expect family members to educate their adolescent daughters, on the subject. In both contexts, males are most of the time excluded from the conversation. My mother would insist that I don’t forget my used pads in the bathroom because my father can see them.
Purchasing sanitary pads or binning used ones can go through the same secrecy process in many places. In my country, Algeria, and despite the widespread of adverts and the change in publicity narrative, it is common practice that some shop keepers still re-pack your sanitary towels in a newspaper and a dark bag. If they do not, some customers ask for it.
With taboos, most women are left with no other choice than using euphemisms and secret codes to talk about their periods. In Spanish-speaking circles some women call them Andres ” Andrés el que llega cada mes“ (Andres the one that comes every month). My Japanese colleague tells her friends and sisters she is wearing the strawberry pants referring to the printed panties they used to wear at the age most of them got their periods. Other references to the visit of suitors and aunties are also of common knowledge. Back home, in Algeria, we are told that we reached marriage age with a funny intonation, “now you’re a woman!“
When I was 13, I heard a member of my family saying women are dirtier than men because they bleed. Worse, they bleed every month. A girl in my school was called a whore at the age of 10 when the word was spread about her first period. Another girl was cursed and laughed at when her clothes were stained in blood. She didn’t even know what was happening to her. The kids were saying that she deserved it, God humiliated her because she was a sinner. Another one, was too ashamed to come back to school the day after everyone has seen her stained clothes. Another girl was believed to be haunted by a ghost because she was bleeding, crying for no reason, and fainting after being angry and highly emotive.
Now, I am a Period Activist!
Written by: Amina Douidi