Commentary Sexual Health

Handing Bill Clinton A Menstrual Pad: One Way to Break Taboos on Women’s Health

Tanene Allison

Whether you speak loudly about periods in your next meeting, or some other relevant topic, recognize that any squirming discomfort you might create only means you’re likely shattering some taboo that should have been taken down long ago.

Every 28 days, almost half of the world’s population menstruates. (Yes, that is the opening line of this article.) Millions of those women lack necessary access to sanitary products that would allow them to effectively work or attend schools while on their periods. This loss adds up to potentially five years of school or work lost in a woman’s lifetime.

Nothing of what I’m writing is new or particularly shocking. But what is shocking is the incredible lack of attention given to this problem in developing nations.

My favorite video example of this situation – and a brilliant solution – was produced by the innovative organization Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE)

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Women get periods.

Being able to say that fact in meetings and in rooms where decisions are made is the first challenge to addressing this issue.

Elizabeth Scharpf, the Chief Instigating Officer of SHE, first thought of the concept for the enterprise while working in a factory in Mozambique. After noticing that a percentage of female employees would regularly miss shifts, she inquired about this trend and was simply told that these women were on their periods.

As if there wasn’t a way to solve that problem.

And so now Scharpf regularly sits in meetings with businessmen, or speaks in front of large audiences, and loudly and clearly brings up menstruation, periods, pads, and other topics not usually spoken of so publicly.  She once handed Bill Clinton a pad while on stage at the Clinton Global Initiative. If you’re going to force the world to focus on a problem long ignored, it’s effective if you’re particularly bold about it.

Even in America, periods are often represented by euphemistic terms and covered in a certain degree of secrecy. The fact that leaders of developing nations, or international groups focusing on those countries, don’t eagerly bring up and focus on the topic isn’t shocking.  And yet the incredible loss to women and communities continue without a change in this practice.

SHE has pioneered an innovative technique, whereby they’ve discovered that local banana fibers are highly absorbent and can be transformed into sanitary products made at an affordable cost. Their pilot program focuses getting local women to manufacture these products and sell them within their community at 30 percent below the market rate cost of potentially available imported alternative.

What SHE is doing is brilliant, but also a brilliant example of how smart thinking and some common sense can solve long lingering problems. But the first step of their work started around asking what was up with women’s periods. And then continued by forcing the issue in endless rooms of power, where such topics would not otherwise be discussed.

It is commonly known that having women in rooms and positions of decision-making power makes an outcome difference. Menstrual needs and solutions are a clear example of that. But I would venture to say that this lack of noticing, and addressing, otherwise unspoken of topics spreads out into several levels of policy.

Whatever one’s particular focus and work around change-making is, keeping an awareness of the role of silence is useful. We might not all invite large audiences to chant “menstruation,” or hand out pads to world leaders. But the spirit of such taboo-shattering acts is needed in so many areas.

Fearless women (and allied men) shouting out the unspoken in places of power can be an incredible force to be reckoned with. Whether you speak loudly about periods in your next meeting, or some other relevant topic, recognize that any squirming discomfort you create only means that you’re likely shattering some taboo that should have been taken down long ago.

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