Human bodies – especially female bodies – have been political for a long time. This is particularly true of periods. This natural function has been unmentionable even as other taboo topics have fallen by the wayside. These taboos have restricted menstruation to be considered a private affair, though it affects billions of people.
In any culture, including our own, it is unthinkable to bleed through your clothing and then go to school, work, a job interview or social event. This is why menstruating people without access to menstrual supplies stay home, and miss out. They fall behind in education or miss out on essential income. A choice of menstrual supplies exists to care for menstruation with dignity – yet lack of access deepens gender inequality.
People with periods face the double injustice of suffering through the lack of basic hygiene and dignity – and then being stigmatized for a natural bodily function. Even recently, a woman in the United States was fired and publicly shamed for accidentally leaking through her clothes while menstruating on the job.
Around the world, people without the means to purchase commercial menstrual supplies often resort to using unhygienic materials or nothing at all for menstrual care. Youth are absent from school or drop out altogether, which leads to lower incomes, earlier pregnancies and larger families with fewer resources.
In Canada, people that are already marginalized and racialized are disproportionately affected. People with periods who experience homelessness, live in northern communities, are trans or gender nonconforming, or exist in the prison system often face unjust barriers to getting basic menstrual supplies. Prices may be exorbitant, or in the case of incarcerated people, pads and tampons might be rationed out to dehumanize and manipulate. A lack of access to menstrual supplies is another intentional way that the patriarchy oppresses and restricts.
The politics of periods are particularly unjust because they are interwoven with other gender inequalities: the majority of decision-makers and lawmakers are men who don’t experience menstruation, and the women shouldering the expense of menstrual supplies have less disposable income as long as gender parity continues to elude us. Put bluntly, men get to call the shots, and women get to foot the bill.
Despite these persistent politics, periods have potential and power. In the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, conversations around sexism and gender-based oppression are happening on a huge scale, making this an ideal time for period-positive programs and policies. As with feminism as a whole, menstruation is experiencing a pivotal moment.
The hundreds of millions of people who menstruate in any given day have been raising their voices louder and more frequently. What used to be whispered about behind closed doors has become an increasingly public topic.
As individuals have spoken openly about period politics in their personal lives, a menstrual movement has arisen to tackle period injustice. We are seeing activism, innovation, business savvy, and international development programming like never before.
Citizens and activists worldwide have successfully campaigned for governments to remove “pink tax” on menstrual supplies – including here in Canada in 2015. Innovative entrepreneurial businesses are offering more menstrual supply options than ever before: reusable silicon cups, absorbent underwear, non-toxic disposable products and washable pads, to name a few. Unlike the common products of the past, these innovations have been created by people who have actually experienced menstruation.
With new products on the market, each person can choose to care for their period, according to their body and their values. Environmentally-friendly? Reusable or disposable? Internal or external? Free of harmful bleaches or unknown ingredients? Pink – or decidedly not pink? All of these choices, and more, are available.
Programs in the Global South work to provide girls and women with access to menstrual information and supplies that can change their life for the better. They can care for their natural cycles with dignity, and participate more fully in school, work and community.
Here in Canada, communities are coming together to help their most marginalized menstruators, with locally-led initiatives rising up to provide access to menstrual supplies to people who have been denied access and dignity. Campuses across the country have started to provide free menstrual supplies to students. Earlier this year, the NDP passed a resolution to make menstrual products free. The politics are changing.
It is inspiring to see people coming together to unapologetically fight unjust period politics. But the moment is ripe to take it further. As our society grapples with thorny conversations of sexism and gender-based oppression, we need to include questions of information, access and choice as they relate to menstruation so that periods can be more equitable for all.
Because there is potential – and power – in half the population living with more freedom and dignity. Period.