Talkin' 'Bout My Men-Stru-Ation

How Women Struggle and Cope With Menstruation All Over the World

Here in the United States, the confessional country, we're much more likely to talk about sex, birth control and abortion — especially in mixed company — than a subject close to the heart of such conversations: menstruation. As revealing as we may be about every other intimate detail of our lives, we still keep our sanitary products in a closed cabinet and are unlikely to acknowledge a funky day as having anything to do with hormones. 

Last week Elizabeth Scharpf and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff brought menstruation front and center on Huffington Post, pointing out that in many parts of the world, having your period means all kinds of nasty things like dirty rags (and infections), newspapers, bark and leaves, and missed school or work. They mentioned an essay written by Gloria Steinem in the 1970s, "If Men Could Menstruate." Steinem postulated that if they had periods, "Men would brag about how long and how much. Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free." I'm not so sure about free (even in France you have to pay for condoms from the vending machines in the metro stations), but on the other points (and more), she's probably right.

Scharpf and Nalebuff suggest that breaking our silence about menstruation is the first step in changing attitudes, so I'm going to do my bit and start the conversation here.

I was a late bloomer. At 12 and 13, when all my friends were already having a regular cycle and sprouting breasts, I wore baggy shirts and admitted my lag to nobody, not even my best friend. When my first period started at age 14, I told my mother in whispers in the pantry, but of course she'd supplied me with the necessary accoutrements years prior.

How very different when my own daughter began menstruating. We had a celebratory dinner, drank champagne, and her father and I toasted to her becoming a woman. She was mildly embarrassed, but judging by her subsequent life choices, seems to be proud of her womanliness and her very female shape.

Neither she nor I ever had to miss a day of school or work because of periods, despite our occasionally grumpy moods, and we always refrained from calling it "the curse." It is, after all, a sign of life and fertility, as well as an indication that your birth control is working just fine, thank you.

And our sanitary protection? Yes, we've taken it for granted. I'm fairly certain there would be a lot more grumpy days without it!

In Rwanda, on the other hand, where Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), a nonprofit found by Scharpf, began working last year, so expensive or unavailable are sanitary pads that half the girls miss school when they're bleeding, and 24 percent of women miss up to 45 days of work each year because of their periods. Overall, this reduces Rwanda's annual GDP by $115 million.

SHE intends to create locally female-run franchises in developing countries to manufacture and distribute low priced, eco-friendly sanitary napkins, and in Rwanda has begun exploring the suitability of fiber made from banana leaves. Making these products available to women would bring them a giant leap closer to gender freedom.

Many of us donate money for cows and chickens to help people in developing countries be more self-sufficient. If you'd like to help women who really are "on the rag" (and likely one that is not particularly clean), and you don't feel excited about writing "tampons" in the contents box on the customs form, why not just donate the dollar equivalent of a 40-pack? It's one way to join the conversation.

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