Bloody hell: The politics of periods

The last unmentionable taboo, MENSTRUATION! *gasp*. Yes, this is an article about periods. Yes, you should definitely still read it. And don’t pretend like it doesn’t concern you. *Uuhm, men?*

We are ditching the euphemisms like the “time of the month” and “Auntie Flo,” and we are calling it what it is: your period. The average woman has her period for 2,535 days of her life.

That’s nearly seven years of making sure you have a pad or a tampon, or creating some makeshift solution if you don’t, and managing pain and discomfort and still carrying on with your week.

So why is something natural, normal, and beautiful so stigmatised? When yet human life is made possible by menstruation.

Menstrual taboos are so deeply rooted in Rwandan culture; we have developed harmful, even destructive ideas and beliefs about menstruation. Generations of women have learnt to cope by restricting their own physical mobility, by concealing their bodies, enduring humiliation by their peers, learning how to manage it privately and discreetly.

Young girls from the age 10-11 learn quickly that this is an area of their life that they have to become responsible adults about, even going to great lengths to hide their period— from concealing tampons and pads at the bottom of their shopping basket, to putting a used pad in their school bag when there is no bin in a bathroom.

In terms of their family, having to see their relationship with their father’s change- is just another thing that young girls have to endure.

Taboos do not just affect how societies relate to menstruation, menstruation stigma is one of many systemic factors that perpetuate gender inequality, it is one of the large ones we frequently ignore.

According to the SHE28 campaign, 18 per cent of girls and women in Rwanda missed out on school and work in 2018 because they could not afford to buy menstrual pads. These absences are a potential GDP loss of $215 per women every year – a total of $115 million annually in Rwanda.

UNICEF estimates that 1 in 10 girls in Africa misses school during her period. Without access to proper education, resources, girls are often forced to stay home from school during their periods, which leads them to miss anywhere from 3 to 7 days every month. Sometimes, they drop out of school completely.

Pads cost more than a day’s wages.

The shame is not simply about periods, but of the embarrassment of not being able to afford something so fundamental. This is why more action is required instead of more endless “conversation”.

While the latter is important, it is legislation that will help the women of Rwanda: women without access to sanitary products and the tampon tax that still exists.

We need to be asking the important questions: isn’t it imperative that policymakers rethink the taxation of menstruation products given the cost to our society at large? And how do we address the issue of ‘period poverty’, the instance where some women simply cannot afford sanitary products, jeopardising their health, cleanliness and productivity? Why are tampons taxed when SIM cards are not? It is 2019, why are we still being taxed for being women?

In 2004 Kenya repealed its value added tax on pads and tampons to lower the price consumers pay. And since 2011, the Kenyan government has been budgeting about $3 million per year to distribute free sanitary pads in schools in low-income communities. If Kenya can do it, why can’t we?

As we continue to make great strides towards gender equality, menstruation politics is worth great consideration.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.