“A lot of it is about lack of education, the society wanting to control women and girls, and so that’s where a lot of the restrictions and taboos come from”
Joy Molan meets the Bristol graduate whose reusable sanitary products are empowering women around the world
Menstruation remains a taboo across the globe and the unwillingness to discuss menstrual hygiene affects disadvantaged women the most. The needs of Britain’s menstruating homeless population are often sidelined or ignored, forcing people to choose between buying a tampon or finding their next meal. When it comes to global development, the stigma surrounding periods poses a major obstacle in bringing women to the forefront of society.
To combat this damaging stigma, Bristol based social enterprise No More Taboo run educational programmes both at home and abroad, which empower women by separating the facts from the fiction.
No More Taboo’s founder, Chloe Tingle, came face to face with the kind of superstitions affecting women during her work in Bolivia and Uganda. Chloe told me she noticed a preoccupation with women’s washing habits: “In Bolivia, they will not wash when they’re on their period. They think you can’t touch water at all. In Uganda, they think you should wash 10 or 12 times a day”. She also noticed how fears surrounding periods manifest themselves in controlling women’s eating habits: “for example in Bolivia, it is said that if you eat onions whilst on your period you’ll get cancer”.
When I asked Chloe why these similar fears are perpetrated in different cultures around the world, she said, “a lot of it is about lack of education, the society wanting to control women and girls and so that’s where a lot of the restrictions and taboos come from”.
How this stigmatisation affects the day to day lives of most women in developing countries is apparent in statistics that show, for example, that one in 10 girls in Africa miss school or end education early for reasons related to menstruation. In many communities around the world, menstruating women are treated as untouchables and ostracised during their periods. For example, No More Taboo’s website explains how in some Nepalese communities, women are banished to cow sheds when they are menstruating.
By offering unbiased advice to women about their reproductive system and the option of reusable sanitary products, No More Taboo hope to reduce the cases of missed school, missed work and poor health that arise from the stigmatisation of menstruation.
The reusable products offered by No More Taboo have an economic advantage on traditional sanitary products, which often make them a more suitable option for disadvantaged women. “In terms of working with people who don’t have a lot of money” Chloe explained, “reusable products can save a lot of money. So you have that initial investment, for example with a menstrual cup you have that initial £20, but after that you don’t ever have to worry for another 10 years about where the money each month is going to come from for your tampons”.
“What if it was so taboo that you had no education on menstruation? You had no money to buy pads? And you had no access to a toilet on your period? This is a reality for many”
But despite the clear economic advantage of reusable products, No More Taboo’s focus is to inform rather than impose, and they seem to strike the right balance between education and sensitivity to local cultures and women’s needs. Chloe told me, “in a developing community, it is never saying “this is a product for you”. It’s working with the people who are in that community to say “what could work for you?”, “what’s your situation?”, “how can we improve that situation to make it easier to use different products?””.
Working with NGOs who understand local culture, No More Taboo are keen to develop projects which provide women with the appropriate education and access to sanitary materials and toilet facilities. With their current crowdfunding project, No More Taboo aim to raise funds for their first official project by the end of 2016, which they hope “will be a long-lasting, sustainable partnership which will continue for many years”.
No More Taboo’s current projects include an educational programme for girls in years eight and nine at Bristol schools. The importance of these classes, Chloe has found, goes beyond instructions in biology, as they provide a forum for schoolgirls to discuss wider issues: “it’s menstruation but it’s also about body confidence, empowerment, what empowerment means, equality, it’s all interlinked”.
More discussions at a younger age about periods are clearly the way to challenge stigmas which force girls to feel ashamed of their bodies. Chloe has noticed that the way young girls talk about periods in these classes is often similar to the women in Bolivia and Uganda. Reoccurring fears and misconceptions all centre on cleanliness, Chloe explained: “the stigma surrounding periods all stems from the thought that menstrual blood is dirty. That is still a stigma here and people are terrified of it. People wouldn’t care about bleeding from a cut, but if it comes from anywhere else then they feeling like that’s very dirty blood. And that word comes up everywhere we’ve worked. Dirty is always there”.
As well as local schools, No More Taboo are also establishing links with Bristol’s homeless shelters to provide women and girls with access to sustainable sanitary materials and adequate toilet facilities.
The sustainable sanitary products which No More Taboo offer the women they work with are also a key part of their not for profit fundraising. These reusable products, which include menstrual cups and washable pads, are available to buy on No More Taboo’s website and the money from each sale goes towards their charitable projects. “It’s unusual that you can buy a product and it can save you money and you’re still giving to charity”, Chloe explained.
Sustainable products also present a more environmentally friendly option, as they do not contribute to the 150kg of landfill waste created by pads and tampons used over a lifetime. “The only choice we’ve ever been given from day one is pad or tampon,” Chloe told me, “being able to show people there are choices and different things you can try that’s all part of our ethos and part of the education side of No More Taboo”.
To find out more about the products offered by No More Taboo and their current charitable projects, visit http://www.nomoretaboo.org. Alternatively, drop in at their Period Party, organised as part of International Menstrual Hygiene day, on Saturday 28th May at The Arts House in Stokes Croft. For more information about the Period Party, visit: https://www.facebook.com/events/577791345739510/
To support No More Taboo’s crowd funding, visit http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/nomoretaboo.