terça-feira, 16 de maio de 2006

Periods: the final frontier

There's a story I've been touting round the national papers recently which has been touched upon by a few columnists and raised some interest from women's magazines, but that has not been given the mainstream coverage it deserves.

The story is this: in Zimbabwe there has been a massive dip in the amount of sanitary products - tampons and towels - available to women due to the relocation of the manufacturers of these products from Zimbabwe to South Africa because of the current economic crisis. Those that are available are hugely expensive - a single box of tampons (most women use three boxes a month) costing nearly a third of the average wage for a woman in Zimbabwe (and practically 100 per cent of the wage of farm workers, domestic workers and women in the informal economy).

Consequently women are being forced to find alternate means of containing their menstrual blood. In many cases this means using old newspaper or cloth, leading in many cases to infection. Infections are obviously a big problem alone. But they also lead to other problems such as violence against women where lack of understanding means that infections are blamed on sexual promiscuity. Such infections also create the optimal biological environment for the spread of disease, particularly HIV/Aids. And of course there's a lack of dignity and the effect on education and work - in some cases girls are having to take a week each month off school and women are having to miss a week of work each month.

Of course many developing countries don't have access to modern sanitary methods. In Zimbabwe's case however there was for many years pretty much full access to tampons and towels. Consequently the knowledge of more traditional methods has been lost. Occasionally women in today's Zimbabwe will hear a story of how a certain type of tree bark was once used, but with just tiny fragments of information about the preparation of these methods it is being used the wrong way and also leading to infection.

This shortage of sanitary products is at the centre of a major campaign by Actsa (Action for Southern Africa). Their Dignity.Period! campaign is drawing attention to this issue and raising money to import sanitary products to Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean government however has a nasty habit, one of many, of blocking products, even those donated free, and charging import taxes that go up hourly, costing organisations like Actsa many thousands of pounds.

The only way this will stop and the women of Zimbabwe will be given their health, and their dignity, back, is if this issue is highly publicized. But who will discuss periods? Certainly many of the editors I approached thought the subject too icky for their readers, by which I suspect they mean their male readers as women's magazines are awash with articles about periods.

Yes periods are icky, and by their very nature rather messy. But there's far more to being able to talk about it than a bit of blue liquid on an absorbent pad in a television advert or a woman in white trousers rollerskating down a promenade.

If it were the other way round - if say penises were falling off, would the world take note? Absolutely. But it's periods and seen as a women's issue and, as one editor put it to me, it seems that periods truly are the final frontier.


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