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Why menstruation matters: on sanitation for disadvantaged people

17 May 2016

When it comes to global development, in working to advance families and break the cycle of poverty, women’s empowerment is the key. But one major obstacle standing in the way of bringing women to the forefront is the taboo surrounding the topic of menstruation.

Women’s empowerment and feminism are hot topics right now, especially when it comes to creating more educational equity on a global scale. However, as a bodily function that is predominantly experienced by women, menstruation is often left on the sidelines of personal and political discussions about the right to health. Periods are the number one reason why girls miss school in developing countries (Femme International). In Kenya, girls miss an average of 4.9 days of school each month because of a lack of access to adequate menstrual hygiene. In rural Uganda, girls miss up to the 8 days of school each term. That is almost a full week of class. 25% of one’s school month. Think about that… because of periods, some girls are missing almost a whole quarter of their classes. No matter how many opportunities we create, menstruating individuals will not be able to take full advantage of those opportunities if their menstrual hygiene is not addressed.

In many countries, periods can be scary for what menstruation symbolises – the transition from being a child to a woman, ready to be a wife and mother. In some other countries, as I have learned, getting your period can be the signifying event that prompts female genital mutilation, child marriage, and dropping out of school.

Inadequate menstrual hygiene management also has negative mental and physical consequences. In India, 70% of reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene, and the effects can go so far as to affect maternal mortality. Unclean methods of maintaining menstrual hygiene caused by a lack of resources, or lack of education on the usage of products, can lead to infections ranging from skin irritation to something more fatal, like toxic shock syndrome. Poor menstrual hygiene may also result in strange bodily odours and bleeding through one’s clothes, which can cause those menstruating to feel nervous and self-conscious when on their period.

This taboo around menstruation causes people to associate periods with weakness. Menstruation becomes a week in the month where those on their period feel emotionally on edge, in pain with cramps, confused about new food cravings, and worried about bleeding through their clothes. I myself, before coming to the realization of how human and real it is to experience periods, identified my time of the month as a point of weakness.

People deserve to feel confident and ready to reach their full potential, regardless of a natural need. Thus, the stigma surrounding the topic of menstruation is an obstacle standing in the way of that right. We all need to become advocates for natural needs. In the US, only about 20% of our government positions are held by women, and if that other 80% are afraid to talk about menstruation, people all around the world will continue to feel silenced and less capable on their periods. The menstrual movement is a universal movement, and it starts with all of us—let’s all give power to the period starting right now!

My passion for menstrual hygiene formed during my family’s experience with homelessness during my freshman to sophomore year of high school (I am now 18 years old), and through conversations with homeless women I met. In the spring of my sophomore year of high school, when my family saved up enough for us to move back into our two-bedroom apartment in Portland, I founded Camions of Care. What started as a personal project to use savings to buy and hand out feminine hygiene products on my way to school, with the help of an amazing and driven youth team of peers, is now an exponentially growing organisation.

Camions of Care is a global youth-run non-profit that strives to manage menstrual hygiene through advocacy, education, and service – through the global distribution of feminine hygiene products and development of youth leadership through campus chapters. In the last year and a half, our network of 1,800 volunteers has distributed over 13,000 care packages of feminine hygiene products to 38 non-profit partners in 12 different states and nine different countries, and is expanding our chapter network from 24 established at university and high school campuses around the US. Each care package is worth under $2, and provides enough for an entire menstrual cycle. These care packages contain nine tampons, four maxi-pads, and five panty-liners–giving all the products needed for an average five-day period.

In addition to the feminine hygiene products that we obtain through purchases, local businesses, community centres, and non-profit organisations donate feminine hygiene products to Camions of Care. These feminine hygiene products are then directly distributed or put together into care packages through our community care packaging events.

Camions of Care helps people to feel dignified and clean during their periods by giving them feminine hygiene products. We also strive to develop youth engagement through our campus chapters. The individuals that we serve are low income or homeless, and generally would not spend the little money they have on menstrual hygiene. Our services give them the materials to take care of their natural needs which they otherwise would lack easy access to. Psychologically, having control over one’s own body is a step towards self-confidence and feeling in control of one’s life. This ability to care of their natural needs is an early step in helping them get off of the street or bounce back from a difficult situation. Additionally, most reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene. By distributing feminine hygiene products, we help people stay healthier. We are always striving to find sustainable solutions, trying to secure reusable products like menstrual cups and fabric pads. Camions of Care empowers women and youth voices, period.

Get involved by starting a chapter with other youth from your area and start a menstruation station at your school to make feminine hygiene products more accessible! Collect items with a feminine hygiene product drive. Contribute to our cause – for every $2 raised, another woman is served. Spread word about our organisation by sharing our videos. Every bit of support makes a difference and we hope you join our #MenstrualMovement.