Tag Archives: menstrual activism

menstrual hygiene day ~ 10 reasons I feel grateful

20150528_134346Today, 28th May, is the big day! As I read the many positive tweets from all around the world #MenstruationMatters #MenstrualHygiene I feel a great deal of hope that attitudes towards menstruation are changing. Thank you WASH for all you are doing!

Reading deeper into the Menstrual Hygiene Day website, I learned about how women all over the world are still suffering. It reminded me what I have, and often take for granted, but am so so grateful for. It fired me up to spread awareness of the circumstances in which so many women and girls are living, all over the world. Please share.

Here are 10 reasons I feel grateful today:

1. I have access to safe clean water and I am healthy (In one study by HERProject, 73% of the Bangladeshi garment workers they interviewed miss work for an average of 6 days per month (resulting in unpaid work days) due to vaginal infections caused by unsanitary menstrual materials).

2. I can choose which type of sanitary protection I want to use. I chose pretty re-usable cloth pads that I can wash dry and care for easily. (In urban India, 43%-88% of girls use reusable cloth, yet they are often washed without soap or clean water).

3. My cloth pads are beautifully designed, comfortable and soft. (In rural India, many women and girls use unsanitary materials such as old rags, husks, dried leaves, grass, ash, sand or newspapers because they do not have access to affordable, hygienic and safe products and facilities).

4. I never have to stay at home because I don’t have sanitary protection. (A study at a school in Uganda found that half of the girl pupils missed 1-3 school days a month, or 8-24 school days a year. UNESCO estimates that 1 in 10 African girls miss school during menses, eventually leading to a higher school drop out rate).

5. When I was at school we had menstrual hygiene facilities and services. We had a school first aid room. (In India, 66 % of girls-only schools do not have functioning toilets and 83% of girls in Burkina Faso and 77% in Niger have no place at school to change their sanitary menstrual materials).

6. We had a presentation about menstruation and were taught about our bodies. (32.5% of school girls from South Asia had not heard about menstruation prior to menarche and an overwhelming 97.5% did not know that menstrual blood came from the uterus).

7. Menstruating did not prevent me from participating in class (In Sierra Leone, girls who are normally active classroom participants sit in the back because they worried about emitting an odor or leaking through their clothes while menstruating).

8. Or work…(Often, male managers do not understand why women need to use the toilet more frequently while menstruating. This adds to women’s discomfort and shame, which may result in women missing work).

9. I was never taught that menstruation was a disease (48% of girls in Iran, 10% in India and 7% in Afghanistan believe that menstruation is a disease).

10. I have a respectful partner and the men around me are supportive empathetic sensitive and aware of the ‘taboos’ surrounding menstruation. (Men’s and boys’ knowledge is sometimes laced with negative stereotypes, reinforcing the negative stigmas attached to menstruation). 

I just feel more and more committed to spreading the positive word and opening up the conversation about menstruation! For the activism page click here, for information about taking menstrual cycle workshops out on the road, click here.

P1210795 (Large)“A lack of adequate Menstrual Hygiene Management denies women and girls their right to education, right to health, and right to work in favourable conditions.” Menstrual Hygiene Day

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cloth pad stitching ~ a woman’s gathering

P1240437On Saturday afternoon the women of Red Tent Gwynedd (a monthly public woman’s gathering centred around women’s empowerment, honouring menstruation and the environment in Wales UK) gathered for their very first ‘Eco Femme make your own pad’ stitching workshop.

Before the event the women took some time to read a little about the kits, the pad for pad scheme, and making re-usable pads in the larger context of the environment. One woman wrote “I am already feeling connected to other women just thinking about such an important step in creating this circle of pads.” I felt exactly same; the feeling of unity and harmony in knowing that similar groups and workshops are taking place all over the world.

As we gathered around in our sewing circle and opened up the kits, I noticed that every woman was smiling as she commented on the fabrics and the colours, the cycle chart, and the clarity of the instructions. For a while we took our time familiarizing ourselves with all the bits and then we started to create, joking that we would ‘stitch ‘til we drop’.

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It was a lovely peaceful afternoon and we spoke of many things; inevitably we discussed the impact of disposable pads on the environment, and that by using cloth pads women (collectively) could cut down on millions of tons of needless waste. We felt very aware that the ‘birthing’ of the new pad in our hands represented at least 75 disposable pads (probably many more) from being used and discarded.

We touched on whether cloth pad sewing workshops could work as part of the curriculum for UK secondary school girls (why not?), and wondered how the modern young woman at menarche age really feels about her menstruation ‘these days’. Whether she would happily carry clean or used cloth pads in her school bag (cloth pads look very different from plastic ones and can be ‘disguised’ a lot easier in pretty pouches) or if she would be embarrassed like we used to be at school. The thought of our young women still feeling awkward about ‘being found out’ made us feel more determined than ever to spread the positive word!

Talking about our own school days made us recall and share stories of our own experiences of menstruation as a young woman, some positive and some negative. Sewing together as a group brought back all sorts of long forgotten memories of our own home economics and sewing classes, which we had fun sharing.

We also spoke of how we wished we could had been given cloth pads by our mothers. And that if good quality reliable cloth pads had been invented sooner our mothers could have used them too. So many generations already have passed with the pollution of plastic disposables taking 500-800 years to break down in landfill sites all round the world.

There was also silence for a while; with each woman quietly absorbed in her own activity. I reflected on this too, about how natural it felt for us women to sit together and take part in communal activities, exchanging information and tips, working together naturally and effortlessly. Exactly what I saw so often on my travels to different countries, with crinkly old bright-eyed women sitting on the ground, chatting laughing and cooking together around a fire. Sadly in our culture we are often isolated, with no circle of women to sit in at all.

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Having this special pad workshop allowed us to set aside quality time and space deserving of this important activity, and made it really fun too. One pad took about 2 hours to stitch, including time to figure out the instructions and make some cups of tea. Everyone commented how great it was to be able to see inside the pad and feel the fabrics, and to see just how many cotton layers make up the pad. We chatted about general care instructions for cloth pads, the simple washing process (soak them rinse them then add them to the wash with your underwear), and how best to dry pads in our cooler rainier climate, where strong gusts of wind and warm fires make drying fairly easy.

This workshop also helped us to gain a new appreciation of the skill of the women tailors working from the Auroville Village Action Group campus, who produce the pads for Eco Femme! Some of our pads ended up a bit wonky, untidy, and a little uneven but despite some comical shapes and cries of “I’ve lost my wings” or “Which way round do the poppers go?” we still all produced functional cloth pads. Sewing our own pad was in some ways more meaningful than buying one, which happens when we create anything for ourselves. We all decided to love our newly stitched pad for all its imperfections.

What I was touched by was the enthusiasm for the sewing – women wanted to create nappies next, then breast pads, then pads of different sizes. It also turned out that the women were not just sewing for themselves but wishing to share the pads with their loved ones. One women was sewing for her niece, one for her friend, and another was sewing quickly so as to finish the whole set of three for herself ready for her menstruation in a few days!

For me, I just love that the pads are so pretty, and that the process was really enjoyable. The fact that I have sewn them with my own hands makes me look forward even more to using them each month, and that even in using the pads I have a connection with all the other women who have made them too, and who use cloth instead of plastic.

So today, as I write about the event, I feel enormously privileged to be a part of the movement towards re-usables; spreading the word about this positive action to my sisters, contributing in a physical sense by making a pad that will save dozens of plastic ones from being thrown away into our Earth.  I would definitely love to run another pad stitching session again in the future, because in doing so it somehow feels as though the world is waking up, one pad at a time.

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let’s talk about it…

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Awareness, understanding, knowledge and open frank discussion can all be catalysts for amazingly positive change. One of my personal passions is to speak about a source of pollution that we don’t often talk or think much about. An environmental/ ecological issue that is escalating all over the globe and will continue to do so unless we care enough and do something proactive about it. The issue is menstrual waste, namely the disposal of non-biodegradable sanitary towels and tampons.

Do you ever think about the pollution associated with disposable menstrual products? What happens to the used pad or tampon? Up until a few years ago I didn’t. In places around the world that have under-developed waste management systems you just see used pads lying on the road, like the photo above taken in the Himalayas of India. And sadly this will only get worse the more women who are ‘converted’ to plastic disposables by government incentives sponsored by giant pad making companies.

Closer to home, I always recycled glass, plastic and paper, but somehow I didn’t relate to menstrual disposables in the same way. I felt dis-empowered; I realised these products and their wrappers were made of plastic but there was nothing I could do with them. I didn’t know the alternatives, so I carried on throwing them away.

I’m sure we have all felt like this at some point. We know that media and big brand ad campaigns like the current ‘Help keep your period out of sight’ slogan directly influence our society and our thoughts. But what kind of message are these companies sending out? And why? Despite being such a normal healthy and natural process, menstruation is a taboo subject. Fortunately though, more and more people are becoming to understand that menstruation is an inbuilt natural time for reflection and renewal. It’s often HONOURED by ceremonies and celebrations in other cultures.

There are nearly nearly 3.6 billion women in the world, so the scale of this environmental problem is huge. If every woman in India alone had access to disposables they would collectively need 58,500 million pads per year. Staggering beyond comprehension considering how much plastic is used in just one. An average US woman throws away 16800 disposable pads and tampons in her life-time. In the UK 200,000 tons of menstrual waste is generated annually which is either incinerated, buried in a landfill site or flushed into the sewerage system. The average disposable pad contains 5 carrier bags worth of plastic, a myriad of chemicals, and takes 500-800 years to decompose in a landfill, and never truly breaks down in the sea.

Tampons, applicators and panty liner waste makes up 7.3% of items flushed down the toilet and in 2010 the Beachwatch survey weekend found an average of 22.5 towels/backing strips/pantyliners and 8.9 tampon applicators per kilometer of beach. More than half of sewer flooding can be attributed to such waste that is flushed away, even if it is described as biodegradable on the packaging. Incinerated waste causes toxins to be released into the air, and buried waste poisons the ground and can be dug up by animals risking the spread of disease.

Cow on Rubbish

And then there’s the impact of these products on our health too. Disposable pads are said to contain a combination of plastic based materials such as polythene, polypropylene and polyacrylate super absorbent gel, surfactants, and chlorine-bleached wood pulp as well as the occasional fragrance preserved with parabens. Tampons are commonly made from chlorine bleached, highly absorbent rayon or a combination of conventionally grown cotton and rayon. The chlorine bleaching process produces an unwanted by-product called dioxin – a substance linked to cancer, endometriosis, low sperm counts and immune system suppression.

So what are the alternatives to disposables? Many companies are out there selling ‘washable cloth pads’ and ‘menstrual cups’. Just search on Google and you will be able to choose from a wide range of wonderful good quality products. I had the privilege to volunteer for an organization called ‘Eco Femme’ www.ecofemme.org earlier this year, and was really impressed with the quality of their pad range and amount of charity work they do in India. There the problem of menstrual waste is escalating, the systems can’t cope, and socially the women are confronted with huge taboos around menstruation often leading to young girls missing school each month and women getting diseases due to lack of adequate sanitary protection. Eco Femme’s charity ‘pad for pad’ scheme means that every time they receive an international order for a pad, they ‘gift a pad’ to a disadvantaged girl in rural India with a 45 minute educational session, covering things like anatomy, taboos, and pad care instructions. Also the pads are all stitched by women from rural Indian villages who are part of the local ‘self-help’ action groups.

So what are cloth pads like? The soft cotton finish is comfortable and feels like underwear; they are as effective as disposables, often the same shape as disposables, easy to wash – after soaking for half an hour in water they can be put in the washing machine along with your clothes. They come in a range of sizes from the panty-liner (that can be worn with a menstrual cup) to a night pad size, and they are free from harmful chemicals.

It was during my time volunteering that I made the decision to speak out to other women for the environment. I consider myself very lucky to be in a position to talk about the alternatives to disposable products. I’m not judging women for their decisions, and I don’t want to push people far out of their comfort zone. My dream is to raise environmental awareness around this issue so that women and their daughters feel empowered to act and make changes – to understand that they have a choice and a say in improving their own health, and subsequently to make a better world.

For more on eco-activism and menstrual activism click here

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