Happy Menstrual Hygiene Day! I guess we aren’t at the point yet where there are fireworks for this particular celebration? We don’t gather at a pub and dye the beer red, or cheers our Bloody Mary’s. We don’t bake red velvet cupcakes for our friends and tell stories of past periods or share wishes for our coming cycles. Neither do we dress up in costumes and go door-to-door asking for menstrual supplies. “Trick or tampon!” That’s alright – we have enough holidays already.
So what do we do for this, the second menstrual hygiene day? Personally, it has me thinking about the big questions. Namely: what does menstruation have to do with our rights as women, and how close are we to equity when it comes to menstrual health?
I had used the words equality and equity interchangeably until a discussion in a university women’s studies course taught me that they are different things. I impatiently listened to the definitions the way I listened to many topics in that class: fascinated and fired up by the topics, but also frustrated that there was so much gosh-darn talking. Everything was debated until what was wrong, was right, and by the end of it you didn’t know your name anymore. Everything was questioned. What I had thought was wrong might be empowering, and what was right might be objectifying. (I have since decided for myself that there are very few rights or wrongs, and what matters is choice. But let’s save something for another blog…)
The professor gave a very clear example of equality versus equity, which has stuck with me ever since. Take public washrooms, for example. Equality is having two identical washrooms, one for men and one for women, each with four stalls. Men and women are treated exactly the same. Equity, on the other hand, could be a washroom for men with two stalls and a handful of urinals. The women’s washroom could have six stalls and no urinals. Maybe both could have accessible stalls to be inclusive to all needs, and could both have changing tables so that both can contribute to changing diapers. This second scenario takes into account certain differences between men and women, without placing one above the other. It seeks to meet everyone’s unique needs. Of course, you could also have one massive washroom where everyone has access and it has everything you need! There are countless variations on the example and we could discuss this example ad nauseam, but you get the idea.
Menstrual care is all about equity. When a girl or woman is denied menstrual care, either intentionally or through neglect, it is inequity. It is injustice. Because it disadvantages and holds her back. It doesn’t recognize or meet her unique needs. For the girls we work with in Cameroon, this inequity is a monthly reality. One that we are seeking to address, together. Nearly all of the girls in Wabane District have no access to the essential menstrual supplies that they need. Not want. Need. Because they have barriers – namely financial – to menstrual supplies, they resort to using scrap materials or nothing at all. Because of the embarrassment that inevitably comes from this, girls are absent, or worse, they drop out of school. The consequences of this are obviously and unacceptably far-reaching: lower grades, decreased graduation levels, earlier marriage and child-bearing, and lower incomes. This then impacts her family and her community. Not to mention her health and happiness, which should be considered paramount but somehow doesn’t weigh as much as the financial and educational considerations.
Inequity around menstruation is not restricted to Cameroon. We experience it here in Canada, too. While most of our girls and women do have access to menstrual supplies, until recently we haven’t considered menstrual products a need, but rather a frivolous want. Recently we have seen progress, as the movement to eliminate GST from tampons and pads gains momentum with the Canadian government. In fact, as of July 1st the tax will be gone for good. This is good news, if overdue. But we still do not enforce any laws that hold pad and tampon companies to share what chemicals and toxins they put in their products. Despite these supplies coming into prolonged contact with one of the most absorptive parts of a woman’s body, we don’t ask these companies for transparency. We ask food companies to disclose what they put in their products, because we believe it is our right to know. But not for menstrual supplies? This, too, is inequity.
Things will never be equal when it comes to menstruation. That would be ridiculous. Men don’t menstruate. And that’s okay. Because we are inherently different, just as every individual is unique from one another. That is what makes us human beings beautiful, and what separates us from mosquitos and photocopies. But things can, and must, be equitable where menstruation is concerned. All that we needed is full access, full information and full choice. And that isn’t as hard as we make it out to be.