Yesterday morning I stopped by a small shop. I had woken up to my period in the most inconvenient of all it’s forms – the surprise period – so I didn’t have anything in the way of supplies. I picked up a box of tampons, but my heart sank when I saw three men standing behind the counter. I thought maybe I would put the box down. Or maybe I could pick up lots of other things to buy too, as distractions? Or maybe I didn’t even need them, maybe it wasn’t even a proper period?
Nope, stomach cramps and inexplicable levels of sweating, definitely for real. Aware of my own absurdity, I told myself I was an idiot and paid, avoiding eye contact with the man behind the desk who picked up the box like you might do an undetonated bomb in your family home.
Fast forward a few hours and I sat down to a series of Women Deliver “TED-style” talks. I was excited to see Kiran Gandhi’s name on the list – the story of her choice to run the London marathon bleeding freely on her period last year sparked a viral conversation about how the world views menstruation.
Standing onstage in a ‘The Future Is Female’ t-shirt, Gandhi was honest about her choice: “I didn’t think that this would be that big of a deal”. But she wasn’t here to talk about herself. “Whilst in that moment I had the choice to reject my own shame, millions of women and girls around the world do not have that choice.”
“If you ask me, stigma is one of the most effective forms of oppression, because it denies us the vocabulary to talk comfortably and confidently about our own lives”.
Cue intense feelings of ridiculousness. Here was a woman who faced the entire world and said no thank you to the stigma it tried to throw back at her, and I was embarrassed to buy tampons in a newsagent?!
Menstruation, reasoned Gandhi, is not a life or death situation. But she explained that in India, only 12% of women have access to supplies they need to take care of their periods. 36% of girls in Senegal drop out of school each year because it’s not viable to go to school bleeding. And in Nepal, although the practice was banned in 2005, menstruating girls in rural areas are often expected to sleep in a tent outside of their home – leaving them open to sexual attacks, animal attacks, extreme weather and the terror of being outside alone at night. Tampons are still taxed as a luxury item in many countries, and companies aren’t always required to disclose the toxic ingredients they use on their packaging. Life or death? No. Important? Yes.
What can we do? Gandhi sees that there are different levers we can pull “depending on our own personal sphere of influence”.
One of these is activism:
“Shake shit up. When people don’t want to pay attention to an issue you have to do something that makes them do so”.
Another is innovation: “We get a new iPhone every 6 months, but do you know how many innovations there have been within the past 500 years when it comes to women’s periods? 3…A tampon, a pad, and a cup…This is not acceptable!”.
We need innovation desperately. We need innovation that considers the environment (at the moment tampons and pads are not biodegradable) and we need innovation that’s community specific. A reusable pad might be appropriate for one community, but how can girls in another without access to water wash it? And what about girls who don’t have a private place to hang it up to dry?
Kiran Gandhi, as she’s made very clear, has no time for squeamishness: “Menstruation and periods are the foundation of the human race. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that cycle. This is something that should not be talked about with disgust”.
Whether she meant it to be or not, what Gandhi did last year was brave. What she said yesterday was true, and important, and showed me that I’m not being very brave. I am lucky in that I have the choice to reject shame and say no thank you to stigma. Millions don’t. I have to be braver.
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