In 2015, the UK branch of WaterAid – an international non-profit organization with the mission of providing clean water, decent toilets, and good hygiene to people that don’t have them yet – launched the campaign If Men Had Periods to denounce that more than 1 billion women around the world lack of water and toilets during their menstruation. Furthermore, WaterAid wanted to increase the number of signatories to their Make it Happen petition, which called on world leaders to make sure that the UN sustainable development goals included a target on safe water and sanitation.
Their tongue in cheek approach was successful. Their adds won several awards, their petition reached +100k signatures, and the final text of the sustainable development goals included access to water and sanitation.
Funny but not original though. Gloria Steinem published in 1878 the 1½ page essay If Men Could Menstruate. The text is as relevant now as it was then
What would happen, for instance, if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? The answer is clear—menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event:
[…] Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. (Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of commercial brands such as John Wayne Tampons)
[…] male intellectuals would offer the most moral and logical arguments. How could a woman master any discipline that demanded a sense of time, space, mathematics, or measurement, for instance, without that in-built gift for measuring the cycles of the moon and planets—and thus for measuring anything at all? In the rarefied fields of philosophy and religion, could women compensate for missing the rhythm of the universe? Or for their lack of symbolic death-and-resurrection every month?
40 years later, menstruation is still weighing on girls and women’s health, education, socialization, and dignity. Exaggeration?
- Period poverty – this refers to girls and women not having enough money to pay for period products in developing … and developed(!) countries. A survey by Plan International found that 10% of girls in the UK are unable to afford sanitary wear.
- Restricted access to education – 1 in 3 girls in South Asia and 10% of girls in Africa miss school days during their periods. Lack of access to safe and clean bathrooms as well as minimal or inexistent information about menstruation are cited among the main culprits.
- Tampon tax – In UK tampons and pads are subject to a 5% luxury tax, 5.5% in France, and 6% in Belgium and the Netherlands. Canada and Ireland appear to grasp that women cannot decide at will to menstruate or not, so they don’t tax period products.
- Religious observance and cultural beliefs – most major religions consider menstruating girls and women impure. As such, they are excluded from rites, prayers, and, in some cases, banished from their homes.
- Food restrictions – In Bangladesh and Pakistan, girls with their periods experience dietary restrictions around products such as eggs, fruits, beef or fish. This belief may aggravate the nutritional status of girls already undernourished.
How can we ensure that we support girls throughout their adolescence so that gender is no obstacle to their education?
Maybe we can start by imagining if boys could menstruate…