Georgina Guedes

Support a menstruating woman

2014-08-11 14:07

Georgina Guedes

I am a woman. One of the characteristics of my gender is that those of childbearing age menstruate regularly.

I am fortunate enough that I don't have particularly severe cramping or mood swings at my time of the month, and with the help of some easily obtainable products, my life continues exactly as normal.

I even have the luxury of having no idea how much my monthly sanitary supplies cost. I just chuck them in my trolley at Woolies or Dis-Chem and proceed to the check-out. But for the purposes of the discussion I am about to have, I checked online, and learnt that a pack of 32 Lil-lets Supers sets me back R55.99 a month - which is more or less what I would have thought. That's not much for me, but the equivalent four loaves of bread I could buy with that money could mean one extra week of eating in a month for some families.

No sanitation for the poor

A few years ago, when times were particularly bad in Zimbabwe, a number of celebrities championed a collection of sanitary products for the women to the North of our borders. This was the first time that I’d really given any thought - much to my embarrassment - to the fact that women in difficult financial or political circumstances might struggle to access these basic supplies.

Initially, the collection seemed worthy of ridicule. Surely there are much bigger problems like, you know, food, water, disease, education… the list goes on. But a little further research revealed that Zimbabwean women were using unsanitary things like newspaper or old cloths to try to stem their monthly flow and were suffering from various vaginal infections.

The alternative - using nothing at all - essentially incapacitated the women for the duration of their periods, because how can a woman move around if she has blood dripping down her legs? All of a sudden, the fact that sanitary products are one of the most powerful enablers for modern women's productivity became apparent to me.

Last year, I researched a story about the Transnet Teenage Health Programme, which aims to establish good hygiene, sanitation and self-care among girls in poor communities. The programme has research to show that families buy food rather than toiletries, with the result that teenage girls stay away from school and other activities when they menstruate, often falling behind academically as a result.

If you consider that many women menstruate for one week out of every four, it's clear that teenage girls who don't have access to sanitary supplies can end up missing a quarter of their schooling, which can set them back for the rest of their lives. Clearly access to sanitary products during menstruation is a huge issue for young women.

Global support for menstruating women

Given all of this, you'd think that when feminist, author and guardian columnist Jessica Valenti took to Twitter to ask her followers if they knew of any countries in which tampons are subsidised, that her question would be given due consideration by the masses.

Even, if like me a few years ago, you hadn't given proper consideration to the realities for low-income women who are having their periods, you could still accept that this is a fair and valid question. Half the population goes through this once a month, so it's entirely possible that a progressive government somewhere might subsidise sanitary products.

Instead, Twitter went insane. Here is one of the responses she received: "If you're so worried abt tampon availability, maybe U need 2 stick a few fingers in UR you-know-what to stem the bleeding." You can read a whole lot more on Jezebel, where one of their writers collected some of the more outrageous responses.

Now, I know that a lot of these responses came from the United States where political rhetoric has coupled any kind of social support with communism, which is evil, but still, seriously? This is how people respond to a woman - a writer - asking a valid question about a topic that's directly relevant to 50% of the human population, and indirectly relevant to the remainder.

I think that this column as I have constructed it highlights why the issue is so important. But the level of vitriol that Valenti was subjected to in response to her question (question, by the way, not statement) his testimony to a far greater social ill - that of the enduring misogyny that women have to suffer all around the world and in all walks of life every day.

And for everyone saying, "not all men" and "not all women" and "we don't need feminism", let this story highlight exactly the state of the world that we live in. This is why we need people to take a stand on these sorts of issues, rather than hide behind deflecting statements that allow them to stay out of it.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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