Thursday, May 18, 2006

Guest Post: Crisis, Period

I have often wondered what the world would look like if women's bodies were considered Normal, just like that, with a capital N. You know, the way men's bodies are treated by everyone, especially the medical establishment. I don't know what that would be like, but I know for sure that such a world would not allow for the kind of health crisis facing the women of Zimbabwe - the lack of access to adequate, affordable, and sanitary menstrual protection.

As Ellie Levenson writes in Periods: the final frontier, the supply of disposable pads and tampons dramatically decreased when production of these items moved from Zimbabwe to South Africa. Disposables are outrageously expensive. There is a a lack of materials for cloth pads. And knowledge about traditional methods of dealing with menstruation has been lost over time. At best, this effectively prohibits girls and women from participating in their normal activities when they are menstruating. At worst, using newspapers or other unsatisfactory substitutes results more vaginal infections, which in turn increases women's risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. (Note: The next link contains a glib and graphic descrition of a sexual assault. Please click with caution.) The Sunday Times reported that the life expectancy of Zimbabwean women is expected to decrease from an already abyssmal 34 to "as low as 20." Women who had the temerity to protest were beaten, imprisoned, and sexually assaulted.

The Dignity.Period! campaign was established by Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) to raise money to purchase and distribute pads and tampons to the women who need them.

When you consider the situation for refugees all over the world, it gets even worse. Among the many other issues (rape, prostitution, and invisibility of women to aid agencies are among the most significant) that Ruth Marshall covers in her 1995 article,Refugees, feminine plural, she has some damning words from aid workers:
"I went once on a high-powered inter-agency mission - five men and me - to former Yugoslavia," confides [Marie] Lobo, [UNHCR's Senior Social Services Officer]. "And we went around and asked if there were any problems, and everyone said no. And I said 'Wait, let me talk to the women'. And the issues came up. No sanitary towels. No proper, private bathing space to wash. Gynecological problems. No underwear. These were things they had never said. Talking about underwear to a man - of course, they'd never said it. So we insisted that sanitary towels be put in family packs, along with underwear and other personal items. I kept insisting - 'This is routine, they have to have it.' Our male colleagues made a fuss. 'Imagine opening up a family pack and finding sanitary towels!' they said. As if it were something horrifying, something outrageous - not something completely normal."

Family packs in Yugoslavia do now contain sanitary towels. But many staffers are far from satisfied with the gains made to date. "If you raise the question of sanitary towels, you get little embarrassed giggles and they trivialize the whole issue," [Senior Coordinator for Refugee Women, Ann] Howarth-Wiles says.
(Bolds mine.) And so we have two complimentary crises - the shortage itself and its affect on the health and well-being of women, and the difficulty of getting anyone to pay attention to the problem. I suppose that is to be expected, since it not only affects women, and marginalized women, at that, but solving the crisis in Zimbabwe requires actually thinking and talking about the dreaded menstrual period. Can't you just feel the shock and horror? (Incidentally, why don't all family packs everywhere contain sanitary products? Oh that's might have to look at them, and we can't have that, now, can we?)

On a more positive note, though, the group blog This is Zimbabwe has a good entry on this topic, and another one that includes some suggestions for how to help.

I can only hope that one day, the whole idea of such a crisis will seem far-fetched. And not because of taboos that prevent us from discussing it, but because women's bodies will actually treated with human dignity, period.