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.

Improving Menstrual Hygiene in Zimbabwe’s Schools

My name is Marvellous Chimhutu and I am a student at Young Africa Academy, located in the Epworth suburb in Zimbabwe. I am a 15-year-old girl, the eldest in a family of five (two boys, two girls, and our mother Lisana) and currently doing my Form Three secondary education.

I am part of a group of learners who have been participating in CARE-supported guidance and counseling lessons since Form One.

Where I come from, people do not talk about pads and menstruation.

It is considered taboo to discuss these issues, and for a girl like me it requires bravery to ask for help. I discovered that this was not unique to me and my family. Many girls at school have challenges preparing for our first periods and we aren’t taught how to manage them.

Marvellous Chumhutu. Photo by CARE.

Like all other girls of my age, when I started having my period I felt stuck and didn’t know what to do. While l was very excited at the thought of growing up, I didn’t know how to manage it and was afraid of being laughed at if I spoiled my uniform at school. One time when it happened, I hid myself in the toilet waiting for the bell to ring so that I could escape and go home. I stayed at home for the whole week until the period ended.

What excites me and my friends is that the lessons we’ve received have raised my awareness of adolescent sexual reproductive health – among other issues and needs specific to being a girl. The most common issues have been around menstrual hygiene. The major challenge for me was getting pads to use, and then to know where I could discard the used ones at both at home and at school.

Our teacher, Ms. Warikandwa, noticed that most girls would be absent for days when they were on their periods, so she had to do mass counseling sessions to teach us how to prepare. I learned to keep myself clean. Later in the term, we all had lessons about menstrual hygiene, both boys and girls. We now know that it is a natural process. We have also tackled the topic in science and I proudly aced it.

The boys have stopped laughing at us when we spoil our uniforms (they now find the teacher for us).

We used CARE’s Community Score Card (CSC) as a platform to present our need for menstrual hygiene support from our families and at school. We were able to demonstrate to our parents, teachers, and school administration that periods were contributing to absenteeism and poor academic results among girls. After that, we made plans to construct an incinerator, install mirrors in the toilets, and for the school to keep emergency sanitary wear for us at school in case we need them.

The school was very supportive, and I feel proud that I was one of the advocates in this process. Now we have special bins to dispose of used sanitary wear and an incinerator.

My confidence has improved when I participate in class and sports because I can manage my periods.

I am also happy that I can also share information to help my sisters and friends at home. l thank my teacher for being there for me, I have all the information I need. I wish every girl could be empowered with the same knowledge and information that I have.

Talking Frankly: Vaginas & Menstrual Hygiene

I have an insatiable urge to persuade my sisters around the world to tear off shame with all their strength. I yearn to tell them to deny society the privilege of silencing us when when we want to talk about things that matter. Things like vaginas and menstruation.

Here is the real deal.

We can crush the walls erected around us in the name of culture simply by talking about the well-being of our vaginas. During menstruation, things can get a little bit messy down there, and so you need proper sanitary wear to maintain freshness and hygiene.

It’s absurd that around the world, many are still found wanting of these necessities. Can you imagine the trauma women have to go through? There is a dire need to talk about vaginal health and hygiene during menstruation. It’s only by doing so that we will terminate the silence and the myths.

The vagina is a part of the body which must be hidden from view. It’s not something a woman can easily speak about – that’s how we are socialized. Therefore, over the years, generations have been enduring menstruation in silence and shame, and without proper sanitary wear.

But has the silence been beneficial? Certainly not. Our misery around menstruation is utter, lonely and complete.

This is why I plead with my Zimbabwean government – and other governments across the globe that have remained ignorant – to prioritize menstrual hygiene.

In Zimbabwe, the provision of free sanitary products – especially in rural and marginalized areas where women and girls live in poverty – should be a central focus.

Vaginas are naturally moist. This means that women without access to safe sanitary products during menstruation become at risk of disease and infection. I wonder, then, about the vaginal health of girls and women who are forced for whatever reason to use cow dung, leaves or grass?

This seems like a good moment to say that if it has ever crossed your mind that talking about the hygiene of vaginas during menstruation is disgusting, wait! What’s really disgusting is the fact that our governments are able to provide free condoms of all shapes and sizes, but have the audacity to reiterate that they can’t afford to provide free sanitary products.

Menstruation is not a choice.

You can’t wake up one day and decide not to have your period. It will happen whether you like it or not, and whether you’re equipped to deal with it or not.

Refusing to prioritize menstrual hygiene is a sure-fire way to further perpetuate gender inequality. In many parts of the world, women and girls constitute a larger percentage of those who are economically dependent. Many simply cannot afford the cost of sanitary wear throughout their menstruating years. Denying access to basic menstrual hygiene products impedes on individuals’ well-being as equal human beings.

The scales of imbalance need to be tilted and menstrual hygiene must be recognized as a priority in order to do so.

The girls and women using cow dung, leaves or grass during menstruation are, in most cases, predominantly poor, geographically and socially isolated from the rest of the world and lacking in political power. It is important for charitable organizations, advocacy campaigns and governments to come up with interventions that are compatible with their circumstances. A ‘one size fits all’ approach won’t work.

Although some of Zimbabwe’s most marginalized communities are still conservative, I can confidently argue that within these communities there are many individuals who are eager for change. They want it so badly, but they just need that push of support to get the work done.

I firmly believe that ending the silence and shame surrounding menstruation is possible, one community at a time.

Along with universal access to products, what if women could be empowered with knowledge to make simple handmade sanitary pads using low cost materials? I think it would be ground breaking.

The problem of unhygienic menstruation can be solved if practical interventions are executed well and the cultural taboos are challenged. Do you agree? I’d love to hear your perspective.

?Read more menstruation posts on girlsglobe.org?

?Check out 
Girls’ Globe’s Menstrual Hygiene Day Facebook Live, where we challenged taboos and stigma by busting common myths around menstruation?

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! ?