Young women at Bukavu City, Congo. Photo: Maman Shujaa Hero Women of Congo/ Facebook
Not all women experience menstruation, but the existence of a 'luxury tax' on essential items (such as the 10 per cent GST on menstrual care products in Australia) is a bone of contention for the vast majority of us who do. Equally as frustrating are some of the arguments against protesting the 'Period Tax'. Feminists need to focus on what matters, this is ridiculous, why don't you go and see who has it really tough if you want something to complain about and so on and so forth.
This last point is especially vexing, because there's ample evidence of what it looks like for many girls and women around the world when the 'luxury' of sanitary access is removed from the process of menstruating. A recent blog post published on the Women Under Siege website explored menstrual care access for the almost 25,000 adolescent girls living in the Itombwe Plateau, one of the poorest parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (itself one of the poorest countries in the world). For many of these young girls, the onset of menses signals the end of their access to education - a right to which the DRC at least nominally guarantees gender equality.
There are multiple explanations for this, many of which are shared in similarly impoverished communities around the world. Shame is a huge factor; open discussion and acknowledgement of menstruation in the DRC is associated with sex work, and young girls are warned against speaking of it in front of boys and men, even when those boys and men are family members. Greater even than this socially constructed barrier though is the logistics of sanitary access. Disposable menstrual care products are financially out of reach for most girls and women, and reusable materials are few and far between. Consequently, makeshift pads are fashioned out of things like "leaves, mattress stuffing, newspaper, corn husks, rocks, anything they can find." The risk of infection is high, further inhibiting the livelihoods of girls already marginalised by an oppressive system.
Moza, Sylvie, and Esperance...three young Maman Shujaa ambassadors who have become just completed the Days for Girls apprenticeship and will be making and marketing sustainable feminine hygiene kits to serve adolescent girls and their moms in this vast, remote area of East Congo. Photo: Maman Shujaa Hero Women of Congo/ Facebook
A Swedish government report into gender equality in the DRC found that less than 6% of women in the South Kivu province where the Itombwe Plateau is located have completed a primary education. But even more distressing than this are the prospects left for the large number of girls denied a proper education because of poverty and inequality: as Women Under Siege reports, 85% of girls under the age of 20 in South Kiva have children, with some of them mothers to up to five children each. Ariane Moza Assumani, a team leader with the women's empowerment organisation Maman Shujaa, tells WUS, "Mothers tell their daughters when they get their periods: 'You're no longer a child. You're now a real woman. Find a man to marry you.' And a girl of 15 can marry a man of 60...A girl of 18 can marry a man of 80."
Obviously, the problem of gender inequality in a country like the DRC isn't simply a matter of access to menstrual care products but it does form part of the problem. Fear of ovulating bodies compounded by poverty makes it easy to keep hold women back. As the head of Maman Shujaa, Neema Namadamu, tells WUS, "Girls remain uneducated and enslaved to an oppressive patriarchal system, all because they don't have any sani-pads."
But this is where grassroots feminist organisations are creating change. Using a model designed by US based organisation Days for Girls, Maman Shujaa is working with local women to teach them how to make and distribute reusable menstrual care kits. The program has previously been trialled to great success in a number of countries, including Uganda and Kenya. The kits include a cloth shield that snaps onto underwear, plus up to eight reusable cloth liners that can be washed. Women are also taught how to make soap to keep the products clean. Since the pilot program's commencement, over 1000 kits have been sold. Namadamu calls the pads, "a stigma eraser, a confidence builder and a girl-power enabler." She believes it will help keep adolescent girls in schools, and that in turn will have "a tremendous impact on the transformation of the area."
A young woman sewing a reusable sani-pad.
As a western feminist, I'm often asked what it is I'm doing to help the women who suffer 'real' oppression. My answer is always to point to organisations like Maman Shujaa as evidence that women the world over endeavour to help and lead themselves. The ability of women to endure is profound, and evidence of it is freely available to anyone who cares to look. What they need is support, not instruction or more damaging colonialism. In the case of Itombwe Plateau, what adolescent girls need as much as anything is access to menstrual care products so they can complete their education. Research has proven that empowering and girls by way of education has transformative benefits, enabling them to become the kind of leaders and changemakers their communities need.
If you want to offer tangible support and assistance to Maman Shujaa, you can do so by visiting Neema Namadamu's website and pledging a donation. You can also research some of the countless other grassroots organisations run by local women in regions widely considered to be in need of gender revolution. Those revolutions are being conducted already. You just need to invest your own time and money into finding them and giving them the help they're actually asking for.