Did you ever spend a day constantly checking the back of your skirt or pants, terrified by the possibility that a drop of blood might have leaked? How ashamed would you be if it ever happened? Have you ever had a menstrual emergency while you did not have the necessary products on hand or could not find a public bathroom to take care of the situation? Scary, right?
Now, imagine that period products existed within your reach, but you did not have the money to purchase them. Imagine that you had to miss school because of that. Imagine that you have to choose between buying food and paying for an expensive but as necessary menstrual pad. What if it happened every month? What if your period was the scariest 4 to 5 days of the month, not because of the pain, the bloating, or the food cravings, but because it reminded you of just how poor you are. Maybe you do not have to worry about any of that. That would be great. But maybe you did not realize how privileged you are. I know I did not.
Reading Period Power: A manifesto for the menstrual movement by Nadya Okamoto forced me to ask myself some very difficult questions. Why had I never before thought about homeless women dealt with their periods? After reading the book, I was eager to talk about it. When I brought up this question with a friend, she told me that she assumed that they used towels as pads. It makes sense. When I was younger, I have seen girls coming from rural areas that were accustomed to using towels. I have seen my family forcing them to shift to pads and how long it took those girls to get the hang of it. I have learned that towels were what our grandmothers used. However, using them requires having clean water to wash them, a clean place to store them, and even bathrooms to put them on. All of those things must be in short supply for homeless women. What about those homeless girls in Haiti who get their first period while living on the streets and barely earning enough to eat?
Nevertheless, it is not simply about homeless women and girls. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP, 2016),24% of people in Haiti live in extreme poverty with less than $1.25 per day, 59% live on less than $2.42 a day. Yet, a pack of sanitary pads costs around $0.90, which does not leave much for food. And prices are still rising. When menstrual products take such a toll on a woman’s budget, she is more likely to wear a single one longer, which augments her chance of contracting a bacterial infection that can lead to a life-threatening condition called toxic shock syndrome.
There is a tight correlation between period and poverty for women. Being poor keeps women from accessing period products but both paying high prices for them and not being able to afford them push women further toward poverty. Reports found that periods are a leading reason why girls miss school in developing countries. They often miss a week of school every month. This impedes the move toward gender equality because while girls are not in the classroom, boys get to keep learning. Some girls decide to drop out of school altogether because worrying about cleanliness on their periods put a strain on their concentration anyway and there is such a shame culture relative to periods, that for a girl, other people mostly guys finding out that they are menstruating is the worst thing that could happen to them.
Now, what about women in prison?
I discovered Nadya Okamoto’s essay while I was looking for a book that would get the conversation about periods started in my book club. I wanted to talk overtly about it, to kill any trace of shame that we might still have about it. I also figured that there was much that we needed to learn about menstruation. I did not have any sexual education course. The closest we got to it was the chapter about the reproductive system in our biology class. It was one of the last chapters and I remember blushing just by looking at the images of the male sexual organ. When we got to that chapter, all the students were laughing nervously. Our biology teacher was a pastor, who among other things, had specified I earlier classes that the theory of evolution was crap. At the end of the class about human reproduction, most of my girlfriends grew very concerned about their hymen. One of my closest friends would no longer attempt any bold action, fearing that her hymen might accidentally break.
But I have learned much more from this book than technical information about menstruation (It was still very instructive. There is even a step-by-step description on how to wear a tampon or a menstrual cup). I learned about period poverty and menstrual equity and that there is a bunch of people out there fighting to get menstrual products free for all menstruators who need them. I got pissed, sad, perplexed, and hopeful while reading this book. And as it happens in life, I started to come across discussions about periods around my social media feeds. It feels like awareness is growing about that topic. And I wanted to get involved in the fight, be it by writing this article or getting more people to think about period poverty. There is hope. I read today that Scotland has become the first country to vote a law making period products free.
Reading the book, I was struck by the idea that there is a hierarchy of privileges. My period privilege was that my mom had a small shop. Among other things, she sold menstrual products. I have never had to worry about getting them. I did not even know their price because it was not relevant to me. Most of the time, I did not have to go and get them myself because we always had helpers that could take care of that. My biggest struggle was to have to say the word « Kotex » which said too much and let the boys know all about my situation. Learning to say sanitary napkin freed me from the shame because it was less obvious. Other people might have had other privileges. But in the book, the author was talking about pressuring local governments, demanding policies on menstrual equity, and I could only think about how in my country, there is no parliament now, how both the legislative and the executive systems are anyway ineffective. In other parts of the world, even if governments are slow, you can still hope that if you fight enough, the laws that you want will be passed someday. In a country where everything is in need of repair, you do not have this luxury. And there are so many problems to tackle that almost no one would want to start by investing in making menstrual products free. So what do we do? Which step can a menstrual warrior take to help women and girls facing period poverty? While waiting for and encouraging a new generation of conscious male and female leaders to represent us in politics, we can still take action in our communities, by starting a conversation about periods, by raising funds, by gathering statistical data on period poverty, and more importantly by coming up with innovative and sustainable ways to achieve menstrual equity in Haiti and elsewhere.
Share your period story (First time, any event that you particularly remember…) Send an (anonymous) email to firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.
Rueckert P. (2018). Why Periods Are Keeping Girls Out of School & How You Can Help. Global Citizen. Retrieved from: https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/menstrual-hygiene-day-education/
UNDP (2016). UNDP ready to support Haiti to recover from devastating Hurricane Matthew. Retrieved from: https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/2016/10/05/undp-ready-to-support-haiti-to-recover-from-devastating-hurricane-matthew.html