Like the majority of us, I have a lot of admiration who do altruistic work on a regular basis. We all care about the world around us and want to “help” but somehow have a hard time coming up with a way to do so or finding the time to do so consistently. I have done some volunteering and donating sporadically but have not gotten my altruism game together by any means. One of the issues I looked into supporting was making the process of menstruation easier for girls in need. I live in an urban environment in the United States and have means enough to deal with my monthly period but have had my fair share of close calls and uncomfortable situations. Being stuck on the subway on the way to an important event during a particularly heavy month sticks out most in my mind. And for some reason, I always imagine what it would be like to just flat out not have enough money to buy tampons and pads when I needed them. What would I do? How would I handle that? Anyway, I found a few resources but ultimately did not decide on which particular organization I would ultimately support. So I was so humbled to see a few days ago that one of my favorite actresses, Meghan Markle, had written a piece for Time titled, “How Periods Affect Potential”, that addressed this same issue. She pointed out that this, like many reproductive health issues, remain insufficiently addressed.
The issue is as much cultural as it is economic. It is often tied to beliefs that it is not only inconvenient, but also brings bad luck. The very word taboo is a derivative of a polynesian word that literally refers to menstruation. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, menstruation is thought to make women unclean and they are basically instructed to isolate themselves and limit their interactions with other people. It is easy to forget that the very survival of the human race depends on this biological phenomenon. To be fair, the bible also describes seminal fluid emissions as making a man “unclean”. The difference is that men control over when and where that happens, with menstruation, there is no such thing.
The problem disproportionately impacts women of color (WOC) who, due to the lingering economic effects of colonialism, are more likely to live in poverty around the world. They lack access to basic sanitary products such as pads or tampons. The shame surrounding the topic of menstruation acts as an inhibitor and many girls around the world simply do not attend school during their menstrual cycles rather than deal with inadequate bathroom facilities, and inadequate means of protection. Even if they have access to tampons or sanitary napkins painful cramps and other physical discomfort can stop a girl or woman in her tracks if she does not have painkillers to combat these symptoms as often happens even in developed nations where woman at least have access to bathrooms and to sanitary products. It is psychological trauma that also has long-term economic impacts as Markle points out in her piece. Girls have the potential of falling behind academically and reinforcing the cycle of dependency on men. In the United States, low-income and homeless women struggle as well with this issue.
So, for those of us with progressive, altruistic and/or philanthropic inclinations, what can we do? Well, we can ourselves become more comfortable talking about menstruation and reproduction with both the men as well as women we come into contact with. We can also lobby for our governments to make it easier for women to have access to products and facilities to support them during menstruation such as eliminating the so-called “tampon tax”. That is, taxes no longer taxing menstrual products. If you are a creative professional, use your craft to raise awareness and influence attitudes toward menstruation. Finally, support an organization already doing work to improve the situation such as one of the organizations below.
Pads4Girls supports the provision of washable menstrual pads and underwear that will last for years. Providing reusable products means the burden of purchasing products each month is removed and the environmental devastation that hundreds of thousands of disposable pads would have on the landscape is alleviated.
SHE is helping women jumpstart social businesses to manufacture and distribute affordable menstrual pads. Coupled with health education and advocacy, girls and women will have even more productive lives than before.