Toilets are a Feminist Issue

You might laugh to hear that it’s World Toilet Day this weekend (19 November). Of all the things to have their own day, the toilet is not the most glamorous.

But the humble porcelain bowl which so many of us take for granted is essential to our rights as women.

Being able to shut ourselves away, lock the door, flush, wash and forget – when nature calls, and during menstruation – is a fundamental part of our right to be healthy and secure in the places we live, work and study.

WaterAid’s Out of Order: State of the World’s Toilets demonstrates that for 1.1 billion women and girls around the world, decent household toilets are still out of reach.

This is more than an inconvenience: it means women and girls are still having to search out private scrubland or a dark corner to relieve themselves, making them more vulnerable to harassment and attack. It means having to brave filthy makeshift toilets which spread infection. It means doing your business into a plastic bag because you are too scared to leave the house at night – and it means leaving your community littered with such bags in the morning because there’s nowhere to dispose of them properly.

This, in turn, means you can’t work or care for your family when you become ill. It means you have to spend more time nursing children with diarrhoea – and illnesses become a strain on entire healthcare systems – draining a country’s economic prospects.

The impact on women in particular is painfully clear in the places in which WaterAid works. In Nigeria, for instance, women who have fled violence in Borno state frequently find themselves sheltering in makeshift camps without sanitation provision.

Rahab Peter, 20, escaped from violence in Borno State and now lives in a camp for internally displaced people in Abuja.

We go to the toilet in the bush. There are many germs there, and it is risky as there are snakes, and I have also experienced some attacks from boys,” said Rahab, 20, who escaped from Borno only to encounter new dangers in a displaced persons camp in Abuja. “It is not safe early in the morning or in the night as you can meet anyone. They drink alcohol and will touch you and if you don’t like it, they will force you. If I see men when I go to the toilet, I go back home and hold it in.

And in Tanzania, student Naima, 14, missed classes nearly every month once she began menstruating because her school had no decent toilets or washing facilities where she could care for herself, so she found herself dashing home each time she needed to change her sanitary towels instead.  “Previously, I would go home to change when on my period, and I missed many classes, meaning I fell behind with my studies. The toilets were very dirty so it was easy for diseases to spread. Many students used to get diarrhoea and there were also cases of cholera,” she told a WaterAid researcher.

This should make us angry, because it’s all preventable. If countries like the United States and the United Kingdom could deliver safe sanitation systems for entire cities in just a few years – as happened in London in the 1850s when the government was forced to act after being nearly driven out of the imposing new Parliament by the stench of raw sewage floating in the River Thames below its windows – then it’s possible everywhere. But it takes political leaders to step up and decide to make sanitation a priority, and to dedicate the funding to match.

When they do, girls’ and women’s rights are transformed. Naima, the student in Tanzania, says she no longer falls ill with stomachache now that she has access to clean water and a safe, private toilet at school, and is now passing her exams because she isn’t missing her lessons.

In Bangladesh, student Ishrat, 13, can now ask her teacher for a sanitary pad and use safe, clean toilets at school instead of rushing home – or instead of simply staying home and missing lessons due to the fear of the humiliation of leaks.

So this Sunday, 19 November, when you find nature calling, pause and take a moment to be grateful for your toilet, and maybe take a moment more to help those who are without this path to better health, education and security, by writing to your local government representative or by donating. Women and girls everywhere will not realise their rights while they are still suffering this injustice.

At 25, I’m Finally Meeting my Cycle

I started taking the contraceptive Pill at 15. At 19, I had an implant inserted. Earlier this year, a decade after starting, I stopped using hormonal contraception.

My decision was mainly based on my growing disbelief at how little I knew about my own reproductive health.

At 15, at 19, at 22, all I’d known was that I did not want to get pregnant. And all I’d had to do was make an appointment with my doctor, pick my poison from the menu of contraception on offer, receive no guidance, ask no questions, fail to read the leaflet handed to me, swallow a tablet I knew nothing about once a day and get on with my life. Easy.

I’ve visited a doctor several times with concerns that my contraception might be adversely affecting me. Each time, I was reassured that whatever symptom I was worried about had another explanation. Anxious? Exam stress. Overly emotional? Family stress. No energy? Life stress. I once summoned up enough courage to tell a university doctor I was worried the Pill was the reason I had no interest in having sex with my long-term boyfriend. She laughed, asked me which magazine I’d read that in and told me it was common for people to grow apart at my age.

Hormonal contraception is the only medication we take without being sick. It impacts our emotions, mental health, quality of life and long-term fertility. Yet we are not educated about it.

As I learned more about the impacts of artificial hormones on emotional wellbeing, it started to frighten me to think of how regularly women say “I didn’t feel like myself” when describing contraception that didn’t work for them. I worried that if I’d been using artificial hormones since the age of 15, they could be affecting or even creating parts of what I thought of as my ‘self’.

I’d also been in the dark about the extent to which hormonal contraception affects body literacy. If you’d asked at any point over the past few years, I think I would have said that I knew my body quite well. I’ve never felt too terribly uncomfortable in my body, but never really consciously comfortable in it either.

I’ve learnt more about my own body in the past few months than in the rest of my 25 years combined. Since stopping hormonal contraception I feel connected to my body in a way that I never have before. I feel like I’ve woken up. It’s an incredible and a terrifying feeling, because I’m so horrified to realise that I didn’t know I was asleep.

As I’ve tried to educate myself about natural menstrual cycles – which I’m now experiencing for the first time in my adult life – I feel more alert to the signs and signals my body sends me. I’m working on building my knowledge of what’s happening at different stages of my cycle, and I feel more able to listen to and respect what my body wants and needs at each.

I find my emotions have far less power to stop me in my tracks now that I can better pinpoint the reasons I might feel the way I feel from one day to the next. I feel more energetic and less anxious. I’m more motivated to exercise, my libido is higher, I’m less easily overwhelmed. My hair is thicker and shinier. I feel more confident than I ever have in my life.

It is essential to acknowledge that the Pill and other forms of contraception gave women unprecedented freedom and equality in the past and continue to empower women all over the world today. Access to contraception is linked inextricably with feminism and the fight for gender equality. Having grown up in Scotland, I am in a massively privileged position to have the access that I do to contraception, information and services. I also know that for many women with certain medical conditions, the Pill and other hormonal contraception are absolutely the best options.

My point is that, despite the layers of privilege within my own life, I didn’t know I had a choice. I didn’t know there was choice as to whether or not to use hormonal contraception at all. If we each have a right to contraception then surely we each have a right to make an informed choice about it. It’s not about saying one way is best, or telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t do. It’s about the basic fact that you should never feel powerless over your own body.

In the 1960s, the Pill was incredibly liberating for women. In 2017, not having to rely on huge pharmaceutical companies or damaging the environment to prevent pregnancy, and to know how my own body works? That sounds liberating to me.

However you choose to prevent pregnancy is entirely your choice to make. Your body is yours alone. But knowledge is power. It feels like I have a whole world to learn about, and I’m excited to be at the beginning of a long road to better understanding and appreciating my body. I’m excited to take control of, understand and demystify this cycle taking place within me every single month, and to harness the power within it.

If you’ve had your own experience of shifting from hormonal to natural contraception, or if you have suggestions of things I should be reading/following/researching – please feel free to share in the comments below!

Shero Sara Conquers Kilimanjaro

At Kupona Foundation, we encounter incredible women every day. Today, we want to introduce you to our latest Shero. Meet Sara Safari.

Sara (left) carried a banner for Kupona Foundation to Kilimanjaro’s summit.

Sara is an author, engineer, professor, mountaineer, TedEx speaker, recipient of the 2015 Global Citizen Award from the United Nations, advocate for the empowerment of women and girls, and newest member of the Kupona community.

In 2015, Sara was climbing Mt. Everest to raise funds to empower Nepali girls who were trafficked or forced into marriage. On day 25 of Sara’s climb, Nepal was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Sara survived the quake and the devastating avalanche that followed while clinging to the edge of the treacherous Khumbu Icefall by her harness and anchor.

Today, Sara continues working to empower women and girls. She aims to climb the highest mountain on every continent (The Seven Summits) to raise funds for seven organizations working for women’s empowerment. When she completes her challenge in July 2018, she will be the first Iranian in history to conquer The Seven Summits.

Last week, Sara summited Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds and awareness, through Kupona Foundation, to empower women living with and recovering from obstetric fistula in Tanzania.

Her goal is to raise $19,000, $1 for each foot of Kilimanjaro’s elevation. Funds raised will support comprehensive treatment for women and girls at our partner hospital, CCBRT, as well as vocational training and socioeconomic empowerment for women recovering from fistula at the Mabinti Centre. You can show your support for Sara’s challenge here.

“Women living with obstetric fistula are often denied the opportunity to live to their fullest potential. Many are cast aside by family members and neighbors, and confined to their homes to avoid the stigma and shame associated with this debilitating childbirth injury. They cannot work, attend community functions, and are often susceptible to infections and disease.  I climb on behalf of all women who don’t have the opportunity to live fully self-expressed lives around the world.” – Sara Safari

Sara visiting the ladies recovering from obstetric fistula surgery at CCBRT.

Kupona Foundation is honored to be Sara’s charity of choice on the African continent. We were also thrilled to welcome her to CCBRT and The Mabinti Centre after her climb last week, where she visited the ladies she had been climbing for.

“I feel so honored that I met these women. They are so strong and resilient. They deserve a better life and I wish I could give them everything. As they were sharing their stories, I was so moved.” – Sara Safari

She was also able to meet the young woman whose picture she had carried to the top of Kilimanjaro.

“There is a huge difference between the women [on the ward] at CCBRT and [training at] Mabinti. At CCBRT, they are vulnerable but at Mabinti, they are empowered, strong, hopeful about the future. I can see how learning a new skill and making money can give them their confidence back.” – Sara Safari

Together, we can conquer fistula

Thanks to Sara’s incredible commitment, and the contributions of her supporters, we will be able to reach more women living with fistula, supporting their comprehensive treatment and rehabilitation, and their reintegration to their community as they rebuild their lives. The road to recovery is not an easy one, but like Sara’s climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro, their destination is within reach.

We’re excited to conquer fistula together, returning hope, health and empowerment to women and girls in Tanzania.

Are you inspired by Sara’s incredible efforts?

You can support Sara’s CrowdRise project today. You can also follow her journey on Facebook and Instagram.


Tying the Tubes: It’s Time We Took Women Seriously

Do you remember the last time you randomly decided to get your tubes tied on the way to the doctor? 

Me neither.

While tubal ligation is not a major surgery rife with side effects, it is still surgery. Most people will consider it – seriously – before requesting it. So why does it seem to be something people assume is a fleeting fancy?

Women Making Decisions

Some women don’t want to have kids. Strong maternal instincts don’t drive everyone. Sure, some women get pregnant by accident and love their child(ren). But that in no way means other women would be happy with that situation or that those women who have kids would’ve been unhappy without them.

‘The Girl Who Cried Pain’ shows a clear, medical bias against women. This bias manifests in various ways throughout the medical community, but one of the most common is to filter women’s complaints through a ‘hysteria filter’. That is, women are thought to be overly dramatic, so their pain isn’t considered to be as serious as claimed. 

Many women report finding it difficult to convince a doctor they’re serious about being sterilized. In fact, many women are flat-out told they’ll wish they hadn’t done it. And sure, you can argue no one can know the future. You can also argue that some long-term contraceptives accomplish something similar. The problem lies in the idea that if you, as a woman, don’t want kids, then you aren’t a complete woman.

Patriarchal Roots of this Response

The main problem is most people have to be convinced women aren’t maternal because women are ‘supposed’ to be maternal. It’s what’s considered normal. In fact, a few years back, the CDC went as far as to recommend that all women of childbearing age start caring for their pre-conception health by doing things like avoiding alcohol, watching their weight and taking folic acid supplements.

While these tips are admittedly good for anyone’s health, many women found it distasteful that a government institution was asking women to behave as though they were already pregnant – even if they had no intention of conceiving. For many, it just confirmed what was already well-known — society tends to place all women, regardless of their personal goals and desires, into a neat little box of moms-to-be.

Women who don’t want kids don’t fit into the box. When they request sterilization, they’re sometimes turned down and told they’ll change their minds once they’ve matured. Women have reported offensive comments such as “What if you met a billionaire who wanted to have kids with you?”  

A doctor with this response is overstepping their bounds. There is no way for them to make that decision for you, and there are no legal limits on who can get a voluntary tubal ligation. Most methods of birth control have side effects, which some women find incredibly uncomfortable and can be life-threatening. Getting your tubes tied takes care of those problems, and the rate of complication from the noninvasive surgery is low.

That doesn’t mean your doctor shouldn’t talk to you. There is a risk some women are not aware of other options, or they’re being coerced into it. But for a woman risking pregnancy and abortion who has seriously considered her potential role as a mother and rejected it, a doctor has no real cause to deny that option.

The Irony of Coerced Sterilization

The male method of sterilization is a vasectomy. Vasectomies are similar to Russian roulette, where the reversal success rate is anywhere from 30-70%. This means that the success rate of men being able to impregnate their partners after a vasectomy reversal is 30-70%. In the cases of women, tubal ligation reversal leading to live births has a success rate between about 55-81%. This means that women actually have a higher chance of their reversals being successful and allowing them to become pregnant.

Obviously, there are complications associated with surgeries, and wanting to be careful is understandable. But women often face a lot of criticism and questioning from not just doctors, but also friends and family, when they bring up the idea of sterilization.

There are many reasons why a woman might want to go that route, success rate being just one potential reason. The assumption that a woman has not considered all these factors before requesting a surgery is inherently rooted in the systemic tendency to pass off a woman’s concerns as the result of her being misinformed or as some sort of hormone-induced hysteria.

Theoretically, any and all women who request a tubal ligation should be able to have it if they meet the age and medical requirements. Yet, many women still end up relying on vasectomies for their partners or dealing with the side effects of birth control simply because those around them succeed at talking them out of what they already know deep down.

If men can get vasectomies just by asking for them, why can’t women access the same thing (with even a little less risk) without a bunch of hullabaloo?