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Periods in Poverty

Extract of an English endorsement speech written & performed by Hannah Mestermann in February 2020.

Illustration by Hazel Mead
Illustration by Hazel Mead

It’s that time of the month. The crimson wave. The shark week. Code Red. We’ve all heard it before, the endless euphemisms used to avoid saying the 6 letter word that is disguised in shame, humiliation, and judgement from anyone who hears it. “Period.”

When we were given this assignment, I was almost immediately sure about what I wanted to talk about. But I realized that to truly understand and be convincing of this ‘crisis’ - I would have to conduct research on my own.

So I asked some girls “what it means to them to be a girl”.

“Being a girl is incredible. I am proud to be a girl because I am proud to be me.

However, being “a girl” to me is more of a social construct. People are obsessed with categorizing people, creating boundaries for what they can and cannot do. In truth, being female is no different than being male, because being female is being human.”

I noticed how a recurring theme of the answers I received highlighted strength, wisdom and potential. And it made me angry to think that despite such spirit and capability to achieve great things; a woman is stripped and starved from such opportunity simply because she gets her period once a month.

2014. I was in year six and the curriculum directed that this was the time for us to have “the talk.” I'm sure you all remember. I certainly do. Boys and girls were separated, of course. Whilst the boys learnt about their share of puberty; us girls learnt about periods. When the teacher showed us how to use a pad and a tampon- everyone in the room reacted with a sense of wonderment. The tension in the room emptied and was replaced by a feeling of inclusiveness. Questions were flying around and everyone was so willing and keen to talk about periods. However, that was the last time I experienced such a celebration of womanhood. We were warned not to tell the boys about our conversation. “ It would scare them and disgust their innocence.” First I was confused that this was such a hush topic- considering that periods have “been around” since the beginning of humankind. But my fear of getting into trouble for raising my inquiry led me to remain silent.

That social shame and stigmatization had already burdened me at the age of ten.

Lucky for me, that is the only predicament I have to continually deal with during my period.

I am lucky enough to go to the store and buy a pack of overpriced tampons and pads when I need to. I am lucky enough to have access to painkillers or heating pads when the stinging cramps get unbearable. I am lucky enough to be able to take a shower and feel clean and sanitary when I am on my period. Most importantly, I am lucky enough to be able to go to school and attend to my extracurricular activities without my period getting in the way. I carry an immense privilege that too many women all over the world have to endure without.

The lack of availability and lack of funds to supply sanitary products, leave women in poverty with no access to clean and safe menstrual care. By the means of improvisation, they are forced to manage their periods using torn pieces of clothing, dirty rags, paper bags or tin cans that manifest into make-shift alternatives. These ineffective and unhygienic “solutions” cause dangerous infections and can lead to death.

Menstruation huts in Nepal

Religious and social impressions lead to a widespread rejection of menstruating women in communities. Although illegal, 77% of women and girls in Nepal are sent to menstruation huts during their periods. One in ten girls in Africa miss school every month because the schools lack facilities to host girls on their periods. When a girl is absent from school for up to four days every month because of her period, she will lose over 24 weeks of learning throughout her secondary education.

Illustration by Jeannie Phan

I understand that being confronted with these facts may have no impact upon you, as these situations seem so far away and seem almost irrelevant. But they are relevant because period poverty is a global epidemic. Over 100,000 girls miss school every year due to the absence of rightful sanitary care. And that's in England alone. In fact, in developed countries; one in four girls are left in period poverty because they cannot afford the products they need. 36 states in America still hold ‘Luxury taxes’ on tampons. LUXURY TAXES. As if bleeding, PMS-ing and cramps are a chosen luxury.

No matter how much attention we put into pushing for equality and forcing equity. And no matter how far we progress into combatting mistreatment in workplaces and education systems; girls cannot take advantage of these opportunities if periods are left unaddressed. The stigma, the shame and the costs need to be lifted from such nature and replaced with a conversation.

A conversation that will allow any girl, anywhere to go to work or school or attend to society during her period without the harrowing feeling of perpetual judgement and exclusion.

A conversation that will encourage politicians to acknowledge this problem and use their power to provide the rightful sanitary care that every women needs.

A conversation that will hopefully put a period to period poverty.

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