Thursday, May 16, 2013

Talking About Periods: Removing Menstrual Shame for Social Justice


In most countries, there is a culture of taboo and secrecy around menstrual health and hygiene. Just think of all those ridiculous commercials for sanitary products that allow you to engage in activities ‘without anyone knowing’ you are menstruating – even if you are wearing white spandex or leaping in the air or whatever. Last year, a British company named Bodyform made this brilliant commercial to try and debunk some of the secrecy around ‘period talk’ but still, we persist in treating menstruation like a hush-hush taboo:

This doesn’t seem like such a big problem until we realize that menstrual supplies – and their lack – is a critical issue of dignity, mobility, and human rights for girls and women around the world.

Take the importance of menstrual supplies to girls’ education.

During a meeting for an upcoming TEDx event at Sarah Lawrence College, I was listening to a graduate student named Ellie Roscher describe a successful educational model in an impoverished slum outside Nairobi, Kenya. Run by a local man who wanted to make sure that girls from his community could get the same opportunities as boys, The Kibera Girls Soccer Academy understands the local pressures that keep girls from higher education, including the fact that a free education is not actually free. Families who chose to send their girls to school in deeply impoverished communities around the world are losing their labor – either in the form of outside income or domestic labor taking care of family members and cooking meals. At the very least, families have to pay for the food and supplies that their school-going children require.

And so, The Kibera Girls Soccer Academy not only provides the girls with what they need to study, but offers all students and teachers one meal every day, as well as sanitary supplies. This last fact may seem startling. Sanitary supplies? How can that be as important as pencils, or books, or a warm, nourishing meal? Yet, without sanitary products, girl students in the Global South are often prevented from leaving their homes and attending school. Why? Firstly, and most obviously, many women living in poverty cannot afford good quality products and make do with rags or other non-absorbent materials, such as bark or grasses.

But there are local initiatives addressing this problem. For instance, a project in the Amuru and Gulu regions of Uganda has students staying after school to make sanitary pads using cheap, readily available local materials. These absorbent pads can be washed and used again, and their availability has helped curb the rampant absenteeism from school that is common among adolescent girls during their menstrual periods. Another example is the sustainable health enterprise (the she28campaign), which is developing a franchise model to make and distribute ecologically-friendly sanitary products made from local materials like banana fronds.

To read the rest of this essay please visit Adios, Barbie!

On Being a Woman Writer: An Open Letter to Virginia Woolf

Dear Virginia [comma, space, enter, I write]

Regarding the issue of being a woman writer, [pause, fingers poised over keyboard]

I am so screwed. [Appropriateness of using profanity with dead literary legend? Unknown.]

I am all asunder. [??]

It’s not easy, that’s all I’m saying.

Not only do I not have a room of my own (I’m typing this perched on the King size bed, legs tucked, computer leaning against my pelvic bone and the deep grooved C-section scar that seems made to help balance a laptop), but the room I do have is stuffed to the brim with:

1. books [nonnegotiable]
2. dressers [necessary]
3. a drying rack draped crookedly with a red and yellow kitchen tablecloth.
4. toys that are not mine
5. a husband that is
6. [most distracting] endless baskets of unfolded laundry

The heaps of tumultuous clothing whine and tantrum at me, but I force myself to ignore them [the parenting guides say you shouldn't reward bad behavior]. To them, I am that very bad mother in the grocery line, at the park, on the street, who is able to look smoothly away even when a small, lost voice begs her to come make everything tidy again. But I know it’s a temporary respite; I can’t ignore them forever. Already my accursed third floor washing machine is swooshing and bucking in its closet down the hall, promising the birth of more chaos into this room which is where I write.

I have to write quickly, Virginia, before these pebbles I have been rolling around in my mouth all day, repeating and reciting and reforming, lose their nuance and their groove, and smooth over, becoming blank faced and heavy. By tomorrow these words will become inarticulate stones in my pockets, dragging me down into distraction, so that I will snap unnecessarily at my children, break my own rules about junk food snacking to keep them quiet, and most shockingly, turn on the television just because they ask, as I desperately scribble with pen, pencil, crayon — anything I can find — on the back of grocery receipts, cell phone bills, and yellow sticky pads which I’ve taken to keeping all around the house just for this purpose. I will write feverishly until my hand aches and still, like one of those dreams where your leaden feet cannot outrun the hungry wolves, the phrases slip through my fingers, sliding off the page into puddles on the floor, leaving me drowning and bereft.

Tonight, I’m losing the battle before I’ve begun. Soon my son will start to cough, cough, cough, the sound echoing with gaps through my fancy baby monitor that circulates through three separate stations even though I only have two children. Cough, static, static, cough. I will try and coax him to drink a little water from a sports bottle. Even in sleep he will protest at a sippy cup – “I’m a big boy.” But I know if I leave a real cup of water by his bed, it will spill and soak the bedclothes like the day I delivered him, when my water broke, as if in the movies — whoosh — all over everything, and then this mother-writer was born.

To read the rest of this essay please visit Victoria M. Johnson's Creative Spaces Blog Series!

This essay was originally published at Literary Mama