Relax! I mean to celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day! On 28th May, the humanitarian and development worlds celebrated Menstrual Hygiene Day with different events across the globe. No, you’re not mistaken, I do mean menstrual hygiene as in menstruation. As in periods. Yes, really.
Now I can imagine if you’re a non-aid-workery type who has possibly stumbled across this page in a grievous Google misspelling, you might be thinking, ‘what?!’ or ‘pull the other one,’ or even, ‘ohmygodgross’, but let’s think about this for a second: There are approximately 6 billion people living on Earth, of which roughly 3.52 billion are women (with imbalances like that, its no wonder I can’t find a boyfriend… anyhow, back to the matter at hand); Of that 3.52 billion, around 2 billion are of menstrual age. That’s one third of the world’s entire population that is experiencing a period every month. At any one time, approximately 334 million women are on their period. 334 MILLION. And yet, extremely few people seem to want to talk about it.
334 million eh? That’s approximately 6.68 billion disposable sanitary towels going into landfill every month – a number so long I had to turn my iPhone on its side to read it fully – assuming that all women are using disposable sanitary towels. Which of course they are not. Some women are using re-usable pads which they then need to wash after each use. Some women are using tampons. Some women are using silicone cups which collect the blood and then need to be removed, emptied and washed before reinsertion. Some women are even using versions of these cups that sync with your smart phone and give you a blow by blow of how the whole show is going down there. Digital vaginas – it’s the future, I’ve seen it. But of course, some women are using bits of old, previously used cloth that leaves them vulnerable to infections in the most sensitive part of their body. Some women are using leaves and mud. And still, extremely few people want to talk about it.
Women are disproportionally affected by disasters; often moving with their families to places that are safer, but less equipped to help them manage their periods. Imagine needing to leave your home in a rush, you don’t even think about your period, you just think about getting your children to safety. You find an empty warehouse where other families have also gathered, it’s safe and its shelter but there are no showers or toilets. A few days later, you start your period. You can’t reach the shops to buy anything, and you are cramped in with other families. There’s nowhere to wash yourself properly; you try to take a bottle of water with you outside at night to rinse yourself, but you feel like people might see you. You try using some clothes that you bought with you to absorb the blood, but you have nowhere to wash them and they are bulky to wear and don’t really stop your menstrual blood leaking onto your other clothes. You feel embarrassed that people might be able to see the blood stains on your clothes. Sounds horrible, right? But that’s what thousands of women affected by emergencies and disasters around the world face when people don’t talk about menstruation.
Recently, I went on a deployment and my luggage was lost en route. I was told it wouldn’t arrive for another two days. In the meantime, it was a public holiday in the country and absolutely no shops were open for three days. About two hours after finding out this, I started my period and had nothing – no tampons, no towels, no space-age-digital-fanny-reader – with me at all. For three days I stuffed my knickers with toilet paper which disintegrated when I bled on it, and ended up piling into little bits between my legs. I was working in IDP camps during the day where there were only chemical toilets which were dirty all around the seat and had no water inside, meaning I couldn’t rinse myself to get clean. I felt horrible, and I felt that everyone knew that I was on my period. For just a few days, I felt like I understood a bit more how a woman fleeing a disaster might feel.
The difficulty is, in many contexts where humanitarians are working – well, let’s be realistic, in nearly all cultures all around the world – talking about menstruation is taboo, disgusting, embarrassing or shameful. Even in my house, where my father is the only man amongst three women (and 6 women including the cats…) we all still feel the need to shelter him from the fact that we have active uteruses, despite him having a vague understanding that two of his own children emerged from one. The good news is, if you’re an aid worker type, more people in the sector are talking about periods. Dare I say, it’s almost becoming fashionable; if you’re not up on your MHM (menstrual hygiene management) you might even get laughed out of the room if you profess to be a sanitation specialist. All aid workers need to start having the conversation together so that we can start prioritising women’s menstrual needs in emergencies. If we want to ensure people faced with disaster can live their lives with dignity that means making sure women have the materials, services and facilities they need to manage their periods with dignity. A belated Menstrual Hygiene day to you all, and I hope that you’ll continue the conversation.