Feminine Hygiene Is A Gender Equality & Human Rights Issue
I’ve hidden it in my bra. I’ve stashed it in my pocket. My purse. My sock. I’ve slipped it up my sleeve. I’ve hidden tampons more ways than I can count, but I’ve never hidden myself. If only, I wasn’t in the minority.
There are few fates more taboo than menstruation—to think that nearly half of the human population endures it is humbling. The fact that there are girls in every country hiding their supplies up their sleeves and many more hiding themselves away each month? That’s an injustice.
Menstruation is not just a feminist issue. It’s an economic issue. It’s a political issue. It’s a health issue. The United Nations declared menstrual hygiene a public health, gender-equality and human rights issue and still we squirrel away our monthly supplies if we’re lucky enough to have access to them at all. And if we’re not, it’s not unusual for women and girls to skip school and work to wait out their cycle each month. Since 1930 when the tampon was first introduced, the industry has seen no innovation greater than the introduction of a plastic applicator. That lack of innovation is problematic when the products available have significant personal and environmental health implications. Let’s take a closer look.
The Hidden Costs Of The Menstrual Hygiene Industry
Valued at more than $5 billion in the United States and $35 billion worldwide, the feminine hygiene industry lacks transparency. The classification of menstrual products as medical devices rather than personal care products means that manufacturers do not have to disclose their materials. Products are often made of conventional cotton (arguably the world’s dirtiest crop) and riddled with bleach, rayon, and synthetics. Women in this country are dependent on the products and too often ignorant to the impact. That’s dangerous.
Ironically, these dirty products are taxed as luxury items in most states. The average woman has more than 500 menstrual cycles in her life time, and in the United States she spends $150-$300 per year on disposable feminine hygiene. The additional expenses associated with a luxury tax only exacerbate the economic inequality between men and women. Chapstick and viagra are exempt, but menstrual products are still taxed widely across our country.
A Monthly Cycle That Leads To A Lifetime Of Discrimination
Still, there are corners of the world where menstruation is more than a mere inconvenience and a monthly expense. There are countries in which a woman’s monthly cycle doesn’t just stain sheets, it soils someone’s potential. In much of the developing world, a combination of cost and culture around female hygiene cripple the confidence and opportunity of women young and old.
A combination of myths, misconceptions, and cultural taboo swirl around the topic. Women in Afghanistan often avoid washing their vaginas while menstruating because they are told it can lead to infertility. Girls in Bolivia have reported carrying around used menstrual pads because they believe the blood can cause diseases if it comes into contact with other trash. There are cultures where young girls are deemed the property of men whenever they first start menstruating. And still others where tampons are reserved for married women, for fear they can rupture your hymen and take your virginity
Perhaps most pervasive of all, in many low-income countries where supplies are limited, it’s very common for women to be denied education and jobs when they are on their cycle. For several days a month they are considered ill-prepared to be in public and therefore unreliable in professional capacities.
When A Healthy Cycle Leads To Unhealthy Habits
In countries where tampons are unavailable and pads are price prohibitive, it’s not unusual for girls and women to rely on scraps of fabric to absorb menstrual blood each month. In best case scenarios, these scraps are washed with soap and water and dried in the sunshine to kill off any bacterial growth. But imagine, if you can, a scenario where clean water or soap is unavailable, where it’s rainy season and everything is wet, where a woman is shamed if she reveals she’s menstruating.
When that’s the case—as it often is—the scraps of used fabric are stashed away under mattresses or in holes in walls until the next month. And then they are used again. In low-income countries, the infections caused by poor menstrual hygiene are rampant. In the United States, women who are homeless and can’t afford sanitary products or who are incarcerated and may not have access to said products face similar risks.
The Public Implications Of This Personal Issue
When supplies do exist, what was once a deeply personal inconvenience becomes a public one on the largest scale. The average woman uses more than 10,000 tampons in her lifetime, each of which takes longer to biodegrade than the life of the woman who used it. More than 20 billion menstrual products end up in a landfill every year and still thousands of others clog waterways and litter landscapes in low-income countries that lack the infrastructure to accommodate this waste. And that says nothing of the cotton used to produce these products. Conventional cotton is one of the most environmentally degrading crops, demanding significant water and chemical resources to thrive.
The environmental impact of an industry upon which women are largely dependent feels a bit like a lost cause, but it’s not. Change is coming. While a few larger brands are beginning to offer organic cotton products in their feminine hygiene lines, there are small businesses popping up to disrupt the industry completely. From timely deliveries to organic products, from reusable supplies to charitable partnerships, here are a few brands to which we turn when our time of the month arises:
Not only does Cora provide customizable subscriptions to organic hygiene products, every purchase provides supplies to girls in need all over the world. The packing and shipping of each product provides employment and job training program for individuals rebuilding from homelessness, addictions, and incarceration.
Revolutionizing the industry through customizable subscriptions for your unique monthly needs, Lola offers organic pads and tampons. To date, the company has donated more than 100,000 hygiene products to homeless shelters across the United States.
A reusable silicone cup that can be inserted into the vagina to catch menstrual blood. Diva Cup, a certified B Corporation, makes a cup that is not only safe from any chemical leaching into your body but can also be cleaned and used month after month to reduce waste.
An innovative underwear that can be washed and re-worn, Thinx panties provide the protection of tampons and pads without the discomfort or waste. The company is committed to global partnerships which educate and empower girls around the world.
Kassia Binkowski is a Contributing Editor at The Good Trade and the Founder of One K Creative. She grew up in Madison, WI and traveled her way around the world to Boulder, CO which she now calls home. Nestled against the Rocky Mountains, Kassia supports innovative organizations from Colorado to Kathmandu tell their stories of social change through writing, photography, and design. Kassia is an eternal optimist and forever a backroad wanderer.