The best period of your life – a new view of the reproductive cycle
As the moon waxes and wanes so too does the monthly cycle of women. Big deal? Yes, in fact it is. Quite apart from the amazing life giving force that women possess because of this (bloody) annoying time per month, I now know I’m jolly lucky to experience it in relative comfort….
When the Scottish government voted a few months ago to provide free access to period products, I discovered that “period poverty” didn’t just exist in third world countries, it was everywhere around me. A biological function that I’ve spent half my life in annoyance with, is life-changing for many women, and not in a good way. So I’m rethinking my “taking it for granted” attitude.
Perhaps we owe it to women who will never get to casually complain about it - such is the devastating impact it wreaks on their lives - to pause whingeing about the inconvenience of it. And maybe, just maybe, it might be possible to finally appreciate the awesome power that it actually is?
I’ve usually thought of my period as nothing more than an interruption, if I think of it at all. For three weeks of the month I’m blissfully unaware of it, and then on the fourth week when I’m a tad grumpier and bloated, I just think how inconvenient it all is. I don’t think I’m alone. Generations before and after me were not generally shown to revere and honour this life giving force, unless you had an enlightened earth mother as a parent. And so the ongoing maintenance and management of menstruation is usually mechanical. And when it’s discussed, it’s usually to complain.
But what if you can’t even walk into a shop and buy pads or tampons? Before the decision by the Scottish government, came the documentary Period. End of Sentence, which was how I became aware of period poverty. It’s a great doco and it highlights the extreme divide that exists across the world when it comes to conveniently coping with what should be a routine part of life. In it, the social activist Arunachalam Muruganantham (incidentally, a male) introduces women in rural India to a low cost machine with which they can make and sell sanitary pads. It’s revolutionary. Not only does it put women in charge of their health and hygiene, it empowers them to challenge long-held cultural taboos. And earn an income!
It was shocking because many of us had no idea that this was even a problem. That girls and women living in societies, where something they have absolutely no control over, is so embarrassingly hard to manage and full of shame. It’s a sad discovery to learn that in many cultures, villages and social structures across the world, women are banished when they’re menstruating. They are viewed as unclean. That period products don’t exist. And that if they do, they can’t afford them. So they cut and wash cloths. They bleed through their clothes. And they often cannot leave their homes.
Imagine having to have one week off school a month just because sanitary items do not exist in your village? This is not uncommon. The shame of leaking and not being able to disguise blood leads to teenagers being forced to drop out of school in rural India, Nepal and Africa at alarming rates because they can’t maintain attendance records. Those that do persevere make do with homemade solutions consisting of rags and even dung – anything to soak up blood - which can cause infection. Period poverty is real.
So is menstrual stigma. Remember the news report about the mother who died with her two young sons after being forced to live in a small, windowless animal shelter for several days while she was menstruating? The woman had lit a fire to keep them warm and they suffocated. The practice of chhaupadi, which has roots in Hinduism, controls what a woman eats, where she sleeps, and who she interacts with while she has her period. And although it’s now outlawed in Nepal, it is still widespread in societies where fear of misfortune for disobeying archaic religious interpretations is greater than preserving the life of a menstruating woman.
This is just the sort of thing that the newly anointed Young Australian of the Year, Isobel Marshall, co-founder of TABOO, is trying to tackle with her products and education programme for girls and women in Sierra Leone and Uganda. I am not Australian, but it gives me hope that a new generation of women are coming through and developing social initiatives that not only normalise menstruation, but educate communities. So next time you get moody, spotty, bloated and reach for the chocolate to console yourself, spare a thought for women around the world and honour this power. We are pretty special.