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Reusable menstrual products are not all-powerful for everyone

ByThea Nawal

Nov 7, 2019

Ecofeminism links the eradication of period poverty to the liberation of women. The solution to period poverty? Reusable menstrual hygiene products. Menstrual cups and reusable sanitary pads can be used repeatedly for years at a time before they need to be replaced, thereby also reducing the amount of plastic waste that is produced. Menstrual hygiene products have been identified as the fifth most common item found on Europe’s beaches, while 200,000 tonnes of menstrual waste are generated annually in the UK.

The #Plasticfreeperiods movement challenges people to hold themselves accountable for menstrual waste by encouraging the use of more sustainable options. In the last few years a number of projects have been launched by NGOs and menstrual cup companies to investigate the feasibility of menstrual cups and reusable pads as options for people who live in poverty or are displaced.

It is hypocritical to urge people who have virtually no carbon footprint to use reusable products and act as agents of sustainable change. Students at the University of Edinburgh have access to every single menstrual hygiene product available free of cost, and are able to choose based on comfort, and most of us don’t even choose to use products that are reusable.

Using sustainable hygiene products should first and foremost be encouraged, with respect to people’s comfort, in privileged communities in Western countries where negative environmental impact is high and the social stigma surrounding periods is low compared to most parts of the world. We can’t ask someone who has most likely never taken a flight or owned a car to use less plastic, when it comes to something as sensitive and stigmatized as periods, especially when it isn’t the norm in our own community.

Discussions linking sustainable menstrual products to period poverty often suggest that because of these products people are “empowered” — a word that doesn’t even have a direct translation in most languages. Because of a menstrual cup or a reusable pad, a person can now pursue their education and go to work, so they are more free than before. Giving reusable menstrual products so much clout erases the importance of individual stories regarding menstruation.

Periods are embedded in the personal and complex narratives surrounding sexual and emotional development. These narratives are often steeped in shame and confusion. The patriarchal ownership exercised over religious, cultural, and social practices and beliefs has deeply entrenched the stigma towards periods in many communities. Most people grow up not being able to or allowed to talk about periods, while a lot of people grow up not knowing what the bleeding is called. Some people aren’t allowed to be touched, some aren’t allowed to wash, some aren’t allowed to pray.

Period stigma signals a patriarchal tradition that is intricate and culturally-based. A foreign company that sends a small team to a community to do a bit of research is not going to undo it and “empower” all these people as much as they will later claim to. It might even further a sense of shame. In the case of a menstrual cup, it might force someone to confront deep-rooted shame or trauma attached to the notion of being penetrated.

A reusable menstrual product is a small step towards giving people control over their lives. However to suggest that a piece of plastic or cloth could be enough to completely redefine the way people live their lives and see themselves is wrong and neocolonial. Every girl that can’t go to school and every woman that can’t go to work has complex factors preventing her from doing so. Even if she can physically go because she has a hygiene product those factors are not erased.

The dialogue surrounding reusable sanitary products is hypocritical. It also paints these products as life changing objects that facilitate education and employment opportunities for women.

Whilst they do allow people to experience menstruation with more comfort and dignity, a small object that contains blood is not going to be nearly enough to change someone’s life. If nothing else, this is due to the fact that people and the communities they live in are more complicated than that.



Image: Oliver-Bonjoch via Wikimedia Commons

By Thea Nawal

Winner of the TV & Radio section's best writer award in March 2018.

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