It all started with a Huffington Post article published in August 2014 regarding the challenges Zimbabwean women experience managing menstruation. Women had to miss days of work and girls were consistently absent from school because they didn’t have adequate access to private washrooms and sanitary materials. Some of them resorted to unhygienic absorbents such as cow dung and dirty cloth.
At the end of my reading, I paced the floor, agonizing for bleeding women and girls so far away. I’d never thought about how women in developing countries managed their periods. How could I not? Did I think CVS stores were hidden in the bushes? I took pride in being a pretty socially conscious person, so this was an epic fail on my part. I took to Facebook to share my agony with my friends.
The fire quickly spread among us. We were so upset, and felt a little guilty too. We were educated, “cultured” African-American women. How is it that we had not known of this issue beforehand? We tried to think fast of ways to help these women and soothe our corporate conscious. Maybe we would call Proctor and Gamble and demand a shipment of sanitary pads to be delivered to somewhere in Zimbabwe no later than YESTERDAY. No, that wasn’t it. The article clearly noted that poor waste management infrastructures were a part of this problem. No trash collection meant no place to dump used disposable sanitary pads.
I began to search the Internet to educate myself on menstrual hygiene issues, and found a small oasis of NGOs, activists and community workers committed to the various menstrual challenges women and girls encounter around the world. And this problem was, indeed, global. India, Asia, Africa and everywhere you might find a disadvantaged woman or girl, needed good solutions for menstrual management.
In my quest, I found Chris Bobel, Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Massachusetts, author of New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation, and long-time menstrual activist. My phone call with this delightfully fiery woman helped me understand how debilitating taboos still exist in most cultures throughout the world. She spoke of the politics of menstruation, and how if men menstruated, health insurance would cover the cost of tampons — how patriarchy relied on menstruation to deem women fragile and irrational, hence incompetent as leaders. Finally she said, “I’m so glad to talk to you today. I’ve been wondering, where are the black women?”
Where are the black women? That question is still resounding within me. As I continue to reflect on this, frankly, I think black women have been busy. With the many personal pressures of managing families, pursuing higher educations and gaining equities in the work place, there is often little time to tackle global issues. Our own delicate burdens feel quite “global” on their own.
I also believe menstrual advocacy presents unique challenges for a lot of black women in the United States. Many of us carry so much shame about our bodies — our blood in particular. We struggle to see menstruation as a beautiful, God-given biological process because we remain psychologically damaged by all that has been negatively spoken about and done to our bodies. We’re still trying to see our bodies and its processes as sacred. Quite often, our bodies are more like unfamiliar machines, constantly receiving criticism and objectification. Also, our bodies have not always been our own. Many of us are still healing from our own rapes and the rapes of our maternal ancestors. We have not all reclaimed our blood as life-giving because so much of it has been profanely leaked. Many black women in America are busy trying to be socially “good enough” in a culture that has insisted that nothing about us is right. Menstruation is not neat, and does not aid us in rising above the many stigmas and stereotypes already attached to our person-hoods.
Despite these understandable challenges, I do believe now is the time for us to engage in menstrual hygiene advocacy, for ourselves as well as for women and girls around the world. Our silence about menstruation has kept us psychologically and reproductively sick, and is holding up progress for those who are disadvantaged. Black women seem to speak about menstruation the least, but should engage in the conversation the most, since those who do not have adequate access to water, safe restrooms, and sanitary wear are predominately black and brown. Our silence is a luxury our domestic and international mothers, sisters and daughters cannot afford. It is costing millions of women and girls the menstrual advocacy they so deserve.
Where are the black women? Some are here and more are coming. In response to that Huffington Post article, I started The Women and Girls Working Group to address menstrual hygiene issues. Comprised of faith-motivated women and men, we’re building toilets in schools for girls in Ethiopia and having pad parties to collect feminine products for homeless and domestic violence shelters in the U.S. I recently came in contact with another black woman engaged in menstrual hygiene management work, Cece Dennis, a Jamaican-American woman in Atlanta, Georgia. Having experiencing hard times herself, she knows well what it’s like to not be able to afford a box of tampons. She launched Project Pink Compassion, dispersing feminine care packages to homeless women in Georgia and in her hometown in Jamaica.
Black women have always been at the helm of justice work and we must be engaged in Menstrual Hygiene Management as moral stakeholders in the physical, social and economic well-being of women and girls everywhere. Honestly, I speak about menstruation now not because I’m completely healed of my issues with blood, but because I realize 800 million women are bleeding every day, and some are suffering in unimaginable ways. They need my voice. They need our voices. Blood won’t wait.