Change Is Not A Choice
It is, frankly, that time of the month. The long, sweltering heat shackles any hope of a lone breeze. The clattering of a pencil just teetering across the edge of a wooden desk. The paper notes, scrawled on tiny chits, sailing above her head and into the palms of some hopeful student. Laughter, pages flipping, the endless drone about Shakespeare. She listens to everything, anything that could distract her from the blossoming embarrassment and unease.
The soreness twinging at the bottom of her stomach infiltrates her thoughts, until there is no room for Macbeth, or Seyton, or 1617. All that remains is herself, and the inevitable pain that she didn’t choose. It is the ache that she faces in silence. Her math teacher with a pink blouse and a hawk’s eye teaches sine formulas with ease, but cannot bring herself to explain the discomfort she copes with every thirty days. Her giggling friends with their ceaseless chatter can discuss movie stars with vigor, but avert their eyes when navy skirts turn scarlet red.
It is no secret that the pathway towards education for all women is cobbled with adversity. Often, it lies rough and bare, with constant dead-ends and the prospect of leading towards nothing but obscurity. Yet despite the hardship for so many females, it’s the unanimous hope for the destination that encourages their first step. When we ensure that these females needs not stumble across such a pathway alone, we often forget the basic essentials required to create a healthy, hygienic environment. Thus emerges an issue once concealed between shades of cultural taboos: the impact of menstrual health on students who cannot access or afford sanitary pads.
Periods are universally difficult to handle. This monthly struggle behind bathroom doors is a challenge on an emotional, physical, and mental level. But menstrual cycles alone are only half a woman’s war. as if the soreness and the aches aren’t enough, it’s usually the ignorance beyond those doors that truly is the kicker. Being disgruntled, irritated, and testy — three attributes that could just as easily apply to men — are immediately and incorrectly correlated to a female’s “Shark Week”. As stated by Belen Torondel and Colin Sumpter from the Department of Disease Control, “The sexual and disgust connotations of menstruation make it a taboo subject for girls to raise, even with their mothers. A qualitative study found that two thirds of South Indian girls described their menarche [first period] as shocking or fearful.” Often, the stigma associated around this simple biological process leaves young women isolated. Embarrassment grows into shame, and shame turns into silence.
It is precisely this shame and humiliation that has a significant impact upon female education. The hushed whispers and long silences are much more dangerous than we think, especially in a society where more than half of the 70 million uneducated children today are girls. Our awareness about female truancy is often limited to social and economic causes, such as early marriages and high poverty rates. But if we could open our eyes and extend our perspective, a crucial part of the answer is as large and as glaring as a Stop-Sign.
Even in areas with access to public-schools, low-income families are often unable to pay the exorbitant prices required for sanitary pads. Priorities such as putting bread on the table and paying water bills takes precedence over menstrual health. With the fear of being ridiculed or disgraced, girls stray from their academics at the tender age of twelve. According to the Guardian, almost one in ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa miss school due to menstrual cycles. The impacts are severe, as these students miss vital curriculum and opportunities to change their circumstances. Meanwhile, the girls who do attend school are left with inferior alternatives, such as newspaper, tissues, towels, and rags. In the rural regions of India, many women are known to use soil or ash during their menstrual cycles.
On a clinical level, such “substitutes” are devastating for female hygiene. Poor menstrual health is often the catalyst for fungal infections, cervical cancer, and reproductive tract contaminations.
In schools, basic hygiene necessities include toilet paper, water, soap, tissues, etc. Naturally, these items are free for all members. Unfortunately, sanitary pads are often not included on this list. For instance, Mercer Island’s Islander Middle School in USA installed pad “vending machines”, in which students were meant to insert a coin into the machine to receive a pad/tampon. However, the machines frequently broke down, raising concerns among students and parents. In places where people can access napkins and hand-soap with ease, what makes pads inaccessible in a first world country?
A simple label: luxury
In several countries, such as India, Australia, and Britain, menstrual health pads are considered “luxury items” and are taxed as such by the government. This basic, six-inch hygienic object is now nothing less than an extravagance within low-income households. Many nations in Asia tax tampons and pads at 12 %, while other feminine cosmetic products are not subject to this charge. To be fair, however, the government is not the only player in this bloody game. Companies that sell pads recognize the commercial value of menstrual health and hike up the prices for such goods.
Textbooks, binder pages, pencils, erasers — all fruitless for the students behind four walls and long-lasting cultural barriers. All pointless for the pupils in pain for five days a week. All because of “that time of the month”. Skipping weeks of school on such a regular basis immediately sets underprivileged girls at a severe disadvantage. The very institution meant to level the economic “playing field” for both genders lacks a feature so basic and necessary. Fortunately, changes are being made. Canada, for instance, lifted its tax on tampons in the summer of 2015. Campaigns such as India’s “Lahu ki Lagaan” are advocating for tax breaks and menstrual health in rural areas as we speak.
Periods don’t make girls the weaker sex. Nor do they make us unclean, tarnished, immoral– this list continues. Rather, periods are only a bodily function that occurs among us, but not does not define us. Progress can only be made if there is an opportunity to educate and create awareness in people as this is not just a women’s problem, it’s a societal problem. Our society can no longer avoid critical questions and deftly side-step this topic. Change shouldn’t be viewed as an option or a choice. Rather it should be a necessary constant.
It is, frankly, that time of the month. Again. She turns towards the window, feeling the soothing peace of a lone wind. It had been years since that month, that day in the classroom when pages flipped and a pencil teetered across the edge of a wooden desk. But though the dull soreness twinging at the bottom of her stomach hadn’t changed, perhaps it is the world around her that had. The endless silence has been broken.
She is free.