Why Menstrual Products Should be Free for All

I believe change is possible. I envision a world where those in remote rural areas, as well as other disadvantaged communities like mine, can have their periods with dignity.

In this world, young people would not have to miss out on classes because they have no proper menstrual products. For many young girls, menstruation is an addition to the long list of gender disparities they face every day of their lives. I find it almost unbelievable that having to go through a period without appropriate products can infringe on the most basic human rights of girls – including access to education.

In Zimbabwe, many girls in remote rural regions, and other disadvantaged areas such as farming communities, stay at home for the entire length of their periods.

This is primarily because of the fear and shame that exists around leaking in front of others. Sometimes girls use discarded cloth, but this does not offer sufficient protection on their long walks to school. It is these fears which prompt them to stay home and miss out their classes. If girls miss out on classes, they won’t be able to excel in their studies, which not only impacts negatively on the girl herself, but on her community as a whole.

The education of girls is undeniably one of the primary focus areas of development efforts, as female school achievement is believed to have long-lasting and far-reaching economic effects. Sustainable Development Goal 4 aims to achieve inclusive and equitable quality education for all by 2030. To meet this aim, I believe that it’s imperative to provide free menstrual products for all.

The difficulty of using cloth while on your period is that you need to wash, dry and change the cloth. However, many schools don’t have facilities where girls can wash themselves and change their cloths, and there is nowhere to hang cloths to dry. This helps to explain why many stay home once a month, and demonstrates the importance of free provision of menstrual products to girls from disadvantaged communities in Zimbabwe and elsewhere around the world.

Stigma and gender disparities are still rife within many communities in Zimbabwe, and it should be noted that the subject of menstrual health remains a taboo. Parents don’t discuss it with their children, which leaves girls to suffer from pain and shame in silence.

In my community, there are many negative cultural attitudes associated with menstruation, including the idea that menstruating people are ‘contaminated’, ‘dirty’ and ‘impure’.

Stigma puts young girls in particular in an extremely difficult position – if they don’t have proper menstrual products, they leak. If they are seen with stained clothes, they risk being socially segregated.

I believe that one day, people from disadvantaged communities like mine will be free to experience their periods with dignity. Girls will be able to attend school, excel in their studies and, above all, stand and fight against stigma and discrimination. I believe that this begins with access to free menstrual products for all.

Menstrual Cups: Breaking the Bloody Taboo

The menstrual cup has gained a lot of traction in recent years. By some, it is seen as just an eco-friendly hipster trend, but for women across the world it provides a cost-effective, safe way to manage periods. For those of you who haven’t heard of a menstrual cup, let me give you a breakdown...

The menstrual cup was invented in the 1920s (yes, that’s right, almost 100 years ago). It is a reusable device to collect menstrual blood during your period. Inserted into the vagina, it sits comfortably underneath your cervix for around 4-8 hours. It is then washed and reinserted, and this is repeated until the last day of your period. Cups are made from medical-grade silicon, and therefore hypoallergenic as there are no nasty chemicals.

One menstrual cup lasts for ten years, so as long as you sterilise your cup at the end of every cycle, you can use it for a decade.

The majority of people will argue that cups are revolutionary because they are healthier, safer and cost-effective – which is true. However for me, the cup’s real revolution is the closeness it creates between you and your period.

As menstruators, we are taught that our period is something to be embarrassed of. We are taught to hide our menstrual products from anyone and everyone. We are constantly bombarded with adverts which detach us from the reality of menstrual blood. The language we hear and use makes us feel periods are unclean, and something we should be ashamed of.

The menstrual taboos of shame and uncleanliness make women squeamish about their own natural bodily process. But, the process of using a menstrual cup means you have no choice but to get down and dirty with your period.

The first time I used my menstrual cup, I felt empowered. It was the first time I had properly understood my vagina, my menstrual cycle and my menstrual blood. I will admit that at first I was a bit apprehensive about being so intimate with my period-y self, but after the first try, I was sold.

The cup requires more insertion than a tampon, and in order to remove and reuse, you’ve really got to get intimate with your vagina. The first few times may get a little messy. You may be confused about your downstairs anatomy. Or, you may never have been so close to that region before. Yes, it is strange at first. But before long, it stops feeling strange and starts to feel like a revalation.

After years of feeling ashamed of and disgusted by my body during menstruation, I finally felt comfortable and intimate with my menstruating self.

Cups can offer a positive alternative to other products for women across the world. They reduce the waste that ends up in landfills and the impact of our carbon footprint. They provides a safe alternative to the leading brands of tampons, which are bleached. Using cups puts a middle finger up to the corporations who profit from shaming our bodies by telling us our periods are discreet. And, they are safer because they doesn’t absorb the vagina’s natural fluids in the way other products do.

Whilst all those things are great, they don’t stop young people from feeling humiliation, fear and shame when they first get their period. In order to bring about real change, we must start with eradicating taboos.

The cup is the tool just for that. When you’re comfortable with your period, you become curious and intrigued by your anatomy. When you begin to speak frankly about menstruating you can change other people’s perceptions about their periods too. The cup is the gateway to being open and honest about your period. Being frank about menstruating may just steer girls away from those feelings of embarrassment and shame.

Perceptions around periods need to change. We need to stop making people feel grossed-out and ashamed of menstrual blood. Periods are a necessary and normal part of a woman’s reproductive system, so what’s the big deal? It’s time to get up close and personal with your menses

As an avid menstrual cup user and trainer, I can happily say that after two decades of hiding from menstruation, and of feeling dirty and ashamed, I no longer do. I want everyone who experiences menstruation to feel the same. After all, there really is no point crying over spilt blood.

Yes, I’m on my Period. No, I’m Not Dirty.

Today, my period came a couple of days earlier than usual so it caught me off guard at work. I asked a co-worker if she had a pad or tampon I could borrow. She handed me a case that she expected me to take to the bathroom and return.

Instead, I opened it and took out the pad. She looked at me and asked, “don’t you mind walking around with it?” I replied, “I don’t, it’s perfectly natural.” When I returned to my desk I started thinking…why is being in your period still frowned upon? God forbid someone hears you say the word ‘menstruation’, because it is ‘rude’ to talk about the topic in public.

It’s 2020 and the cashier at the drug store still looks at me strangely when I buy tampons and say no thank you when she offers me a plastic bag. How dare I walk down the street without hiding my malign purchase?

For centuries, women on their periods have been thought of as ‘dirty’ or ‘impure’. This has to stop. It is a social construction that leads to gender discrimination, misinformation and taboos.

This experience I had at work came at a very convenient moment since last week the documentary Period. End of Sentence won an Oscar. This brilliant documentary shows us how women in rural India fight for menstrual equality. But our sisters in India aren’t the only ones battling with this issue.

At least 500 million women and girls globally lack space and supplies for handling their periods.

In Mexico, where 44% of our women live in poverty, many don’t even have access to decent period care, let alone healthcare supplies. This lack of healthcare access causes them to live in hygiene crisis and at risk of infection.

In some countries, menstrual supplies are no longer taxed and in others they are totally free of cost. Governments needs to be on our side with these initiatives so women from more vulnerable social situations don’t have to choose between food on their plate or menstrual supplies.

As women, we need to empower other women to speak freely about their periods without embarrassment or shame.

We need to speak our minds when we are faced with stigma and taboo.

Men need to stop ignoring or repelling us whenever we talk about menstruation and get involved in listening to what this process means to us and how we get through it.

It’s 2020. Menstruation is natural. Let’s end period taboo once and for all.

Menstrual Pain is a Public Health Matter

Menstrual health is a topic that is often neglected and ignored. In particular, the issue of menstrual pain can be overlooked because of the stigma that surrounds it. However, I recently read an article in Cosmopolitan magazine about period pain. It mentioned Professor John Guillebaud, of University College London, who described the severity in pain as being “almost as bad as a heart attack”.

Despite this, many doctors dismiss menstrual pain as irrelevant when a patient brings it up. As a practicing doctor, I have come across patients in casualty complaining of period pain. Shamefully, I admit that I have trivialized these women and their pain. Because of my own internalized sexism, I have choosen not to believe them or expected them to just ‘deal with it’ (it’s all part of womanhood, isn’t it?). I believe many other doctors, both male and female, have harboured similar thoughts. As a result, women to wait longer for medical attention and sometimes receive inadequate pain management.

Menstrual pain interferes with the daily life of one in five women.

The two main causes of debilitating pain are primary dysmenorrhoea and endometriosis. It is often difficult to differentiate between the two because they can present with similar symptoms. Endometriosis can be difficult to diagnose – in some instances the diagnosis process can take up to a decade. Doctors have struggled to find the specific medical causes for primary dysmenorrhoea. This may be related to the poor quality or low volume of sufficient scientific and medical research into menstrual pain.

I believe menstrual pain is ignored or completely disregarded by our society and culture. At times, males cannot relate because they cannot share the experience. As women, we are not taught not to discuss menstruation openly and to keep the great physical and emotional distress we may have to go through to ourselves.

In the workforce, menstrual pain is seen as a hindrance – yet another reason to deny women equality in the workplace. In schools, girls and young women are shamed for their pain and as a result, many choose to stay at home if the intensity increases.

There are changes that need to take place regarding menstrual pain:

  • Increased awareness around menstrual pain and its causes
  • More open discussions about menstrual health in the media, schools, offices and GP rooms to remove the stigma around menstruation
  • Consideration of menstrual leave
  • Increased scientific research
  • Access to adequate and safe pain management for women
  • Recognition of menstrual pain as a public health matter

Menstruation is a normal biological process and we should not shame people for it. We must not neglect menstrual pain or matters surrounding it. We need to open dialogue and provide more medical information on menstrual pain to help the many women who suffer silently.

Taking Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) Seriously

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a common experience for many women. The most common symptoms include bloating, fatigue, headaches, and mood swings. As annoying and bothersome as these symptoms can be, most women are able to endure this monthly disturbance without any major issues.

But PMS can turn into a debilitating and even life-threatening disorder that is unfortunately not nearly as well-known as it should be – premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).

The disorder is recognized by both the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization. Current estimates indicate that PMDD affects 1 in 20 women or individuals assigned female at birth of reproductive age.

The symptoms of PMDD are similar to those of PMS, but much more severe. They also include loss of interest in daily activities, difficulty concentrating, anger, sudden mood swings, and severe anxiety and/or depression. Symptoms can even lead up to suicidal thoughts and/or attempts.

Several women have shared the struggle of living with PMDD with the BBC. They talk of experiencing bursts of anger, suicidal thoughts, and even being sanctioned to psychiatric hospitals. With treatment, however, the women shared that they are able to live happy and fulfilling lives, despite PMDD.

Lack of awareness of PMDD is likely the main obstacle for treatment.

I myself only heard of it for the first time around a year ago. A survey commissioned by the Society for Women’s Health Research revealed that 45% of respondents never talked about PMS with their doctors. Worse yet: 24% of respondents who claimed having severe PMS symptoms were unaware of PMDD, and feared that their doctors would not take their complaints seriously.

To diagnose PMDD, as there is no specific test, a doctor must first eliminate other possible causes for symptoms. The doctor will want to rule out thyroid disorder, anxiety and mood disorders, and chronic fatigue syndrome, for example. These can all cause similar symptoms to PMDD. To be considered PMDD, symptoms must show up during the week or two before a woman gets her menstrual period, and subside shortly after the period begins.

Treatment options vary, from hormonal treatment with birth control pills, to taking the class of antidepressants called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). Since PMDD only shows up around the time before a menstrual period, it may take a few cycles for treatment to take effect, but with adequate treatment and support, it’s possible to live well with PMDD.

Women’s health, especially surrounding menstruation, remains a taboo and stigmatized topic, even in developed countries.

We need a major culture change to start taking women-specific health issues as seriously as other health issues. I believe this change must start with us, women, in breaking the shame and stigma that may live within ourselves. How many times have we been ashamed of our own periods and PMS symptoms? I know I have. Change begins with us. We should be proud of our biology, know our bodies, talk openly, take our symptoms seriously, seek medical help, fight for the treatment we deserve, and encourage other women to do same.

If you think you may have PMDD, please reach out for help, especially if you’ve been experiencing suicidal thoughts. Talk to a trusted family member of friend and seek medical help as soon as possible. If you have PMDD, we welcome you to share your experience with us, so we can break the stigma together!

10 Bloody Big Wins for Periods in 2019 (so far)

1.Periods won an Oscar!

Netflix’s Period: End of Sentence, an uplifting film about menstruation in India, won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short! This prestigious award was won even after an anonymous Oscar judge said men would not vote for the film because “it’s just icky for men.”

2. Free menstrual products hit England

2019 has been a BIG year for menstrual equality in England. After the inspiring Amika George launched the #FreePeriods campaign, things really took off. The government listened and took action. First schools offered free menstrual products, and a few months later the NHS followed.

3. Period books galore

This is the year of the period books. From the Children’s book The Moon Within to books such as the Managed Body and Period Power, the beauty of periods and the strength of menstruators’ activism is showcased in beautiful hardback. Oh – and let’s not forget Germany’s ingenious effort to curtail the tampon tax… the tampon book!

4. Standing up for better products in Kenya

March brought the fantastic #MyAlwaysExperience campaign to Kenya. Women called for a boycott of Always sanitary towels, accusing the manufacturer, Proctor & Gamble, of supplying the African market with substandard products. Their experiences ranged from rashes, itchiness, bad smell and discomfort. The campaign showed the power of voices to stand up to the injustice of low-quality menstrual products!

5. Periods took the issue

In May, periods literally covered the May issue of Scientific American, which for the first time focused a whole issue specifically on women’s reproductive health! What is the real purpose of a period? What are the consequences of gaps in medical understandings of menstruation? All was answered in this special edition.

6. South Africa campaign win

In April, the value-added tax on period products went from 15% to 0% in South Africa, all through the bloody hard work of the #BecauseWeBleed & #TamponTaxMustFall campaigns.

7. Period emoji launched

2019 saw the newest emoji make crimson waves across social media thanks to Plan International UK and a number of other fantastic activists. The red blood droplet is symbolic of menstruation and also of the fact that periods are not shameful!

8. Goodbye US Tampon Tax (well kind of)

This year saw more states in the US eliminate the ‘tampon tax’ – including Louisiana and Utah. That now makes a total of nine states which have given menstrual products a medical supply tax exemption, aligning them with products like condoms, dandruff shampoo, gauze and chapstick.

9. ‘Nothing’s more cuterus than your uterus’!

A medical congress in Bengaluru shot period pads to the headlines by creating the longest line of sanitary pads EVER! This Guinness World Record included about 500 people who arranged more than 10,000 pads in a line stretching up to 1,078 metres long. It took almost 8 hours to complete!

10. Menstrual Hygiene Day: bigger, louder, bloodier

This Menstrual Hygiene Day is set to be bigger and better than ever. Bringing together activists, program staff, people who menstruate and many more there’s a whole flow of social media movement today. Check out Girls’ Globe’s Menstrual Hygiene Day Facebook Live, where we challenged taboos and stigma by busting some myths around menstruation.

Follow #MenstruationMatters and #MHDay2019 and read more menstruation posts on girlsglobe.org to make sure you keep in the bloody loop! ?