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December 13, 2006

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There's a factor missing. Disposable menstrual products are historically very recent. Why aren't the women of Zimbabwe going back to traditional methods, which must have been moderately practical & hygienic? Not sterile, but *workable*. AFAIK European tradition was to use washable cloth, like a small diaper but held on with a belt. Why aren't Zimbabwean women using whatever kind of fabric they use for diapers? There's something else going on here.

What Doctor Science says! Up to my mothers generation cloth was normal. She preferred the disposables to the washing/cooking, but before it was available she could work and take care of us with oldfashioned means.

To be honest; I don't like using too many disposables, so I often use a mooncup. I'm sure something like that could be produced cheaper in big quantities for Zimbabwean women if somebody worked on it.

Dr. Science: I think the answer is probably: urbanization. -- I'd imagine a lot of the earlier solutions involve things normally found in the countryside, like absorbent plant material. It might be a lot harder to find in Harare.

Note that I actually don't know what Zimbabwean culture around periods is.

But, supposing that the same kind of hostility and disgust towards menstruating women exists in Zimbabwe as exists in the cultures with which I am familiar (the UK and the US) then my guess is that there are two added factors:

One is that if you don't have access to fuel to heat water properly for a weekly wash, then it's not so easy to make of use re-usable sanitary products - which are, ultimately dependent on being able to, well, wash them. I have friends who use reusable menstrual equipment but who revert to tampons or disposable pads when they're hiking and don't have access to what we take for granted in our daily lives - large quantities of clean hot water.

Two is that the major advantage of disposable sanitary products is that they're concealable. No one has to know that you're having your period: you just head towards the lavatory with a tampon or a pad tucked into your pocket, and dispose of the old pad/tampon where you dispose of the toilet paper.

Zimbabwean women undoubtedly once had access to some natural or re-usable method: either plant fibre (which probably isn't accessible in cities) or washable cloths - but see the problems of washing washable cloths, if you're living in a small living space, the only lavatory is shared with several other households, and washing is done once a week to save on fuel. There's a reason why women started using disposable pads/tampons as soon as they became available - and why moving back to reusable ones is taking some time and effort and is pretty much dependent on losing that attitude of shame and disgust associated with menstruation/menstrual blood.

Mooncups are a great option if you can rely on there always being a sink with a tap that you can use to rinse it out before replacing it.

@Jesurgislac: but you only need to replace it once every 4-12 hours and you can use a wet towel or even a few sheets of paper to clean it. I'd rather carry a wet towel/bottle of water to work than have infections from dirty paper.

Disposables are definately easy, but I am really suprised that not having them would cause such enormous problems.

It is amazing the things that autocratic governments will meddle with. Sheesh.

Marbel: I'd rather carry a wet towel/bottle of water to work than have infections from dirty paper.

Well, it's fairly clear that the women in Zimbabwe aren't being offered the option of "mooncup or dirty paper", are they? What would you do with your wet towel/bottle of water if you were working outdoors in the field all day?

Sebastian: It is amazing the things that autocratic governments will meddle with. Sheesh.

Yes, indeed, but you've made clear you're all for autocratic governments meddling in things even more intimate and important than menstruation, Sebastian - so perhaps you should pipe down to avoid bursting the irony-o-meter?

PS: No, I don't really want Sebastian to pipe down. My irony-o-meter, however, did squawk a bit at Sebastian, of all people, making that comment. I'll switch it off now.

"Yes, indeed, but you've made clear you're all for autocratic governments meddling in things even more intimate and important than menstruation..."

I can't imagine what you are talking about. Gun control? Police protection from murder? The right to contract?
I'm always happy to fill your apparently insatiable need to feel like conservatives everywhere are just like Mugabe. Hey, isn't he for socialized land reform? Hmm.

In the future I'll try not to assent to the horror of anyone's practices without also mentioning that they illustrate the need to agree with all political preferences of Jesurgislac.

"But, supposing that the same kind of hostility and disgust towards menstruating women exists in Zimbabwe as exists in the cultures with which I am familiar (the UK and the US"

I'm hesitant to ask what hostility and disgust menstruating women meet here, but ? Sure, not every family throws a first period party, but hostility?

Good find. Those links and this thread has been educational.

Thanks for such a comprehensive post on the Dignity.Period! issue. I am pasting below a response to a comment left by @Doctor Science on our blog. I want to answer this as fully as possible because I imagine s/he is not the only person who has questions like this...

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The issue of sanitary ware has to be seen in the context of Zimbabwe as whole to fully understand the reason why it is a crisis. Inflation in Zimbabwe is now running at nearly 1,100% and that has a negative impact on every aspect of life. It is escalating fast and facts are out of date already. May I just say that the cost of sanitary ware reported in our original piece - i.e. half a months' wages - no longer applies. Since then, inflation has rocketed further and a friend of mine told me recently that her monthly income is now LESS than the price of one box of tampons in one month. And she's lucky - she has a job. 70% of the people in our country do not have a job.

Ordinary solutions that women in healthier economies might consider as an alternative to tampons and sanitary towels - for example, cotton wool - is simply unaffordable to women in Zimbabwe. In fact, toilet paper - imagine doing without that! - is no longer affordable.

People can no longer afford to buy newspapers to read, never mind tear up for sanitary ware so that isn't an option either. I can assure you if they could buy newspapers, they'd be passed around as precious reading material!!

Using washable cloth as you suggest, if it was especially purchased for this purpose, would far exceed the costs of these items above so that isn't an option.

The alternative would be for women to perhaps perhaps tear up old clothing - but that assumes that someone who is poverty stricken has 'old clothing' they can use or afford to tear up and part with. When will they next be able to afford to replace this item?

The issue of hygiene is so critical its impossible to over-emphasise. Zimbabwe has among the highest HIV statistics in the world - and there is a real question of whether women have access to water clean enough in some areas to wash these items for use in such an intimate way. The issue of infection is always worrying to a person who is HIV positive, but it is even more of an issue if that person does not have adequate nutrition, and has no way of paying for any kind of medical treatment. Life expectancy for women is the lowest in the world in Zimbabwe - it currently stands at 34, but the WHO believe it may be even lower than that.

In urban areas, the crumbling economy has meant shortages of water purification chemicals in some towns, and the basic upkeep of sewerage systems can be hit and miss. There are some parts of Harare where I have been almost sick from the smell of raw sewerage in the streets. Cholera is a recurring worry in some areas. Rubbish collection services are a joke and there are piles of rotting rubbish in the alleys of Bulawayo.

Keep in mind too that last year Mugabe embarked on a program called Murambatsvina - I encourage you to read about this horrific 'program' - which forcibly displaced thousands of people out of their shanty homes resulting in many living in inhumane squatter conditions. It is very very difficult for anyone to maintain optimum levels of hygiene in these conditions. Furthermore, these sort of unhealthy conditions again lower imunity to infections even further.

For all these reasons, the shortage of sanitary ware can most certainly be very accurately described as a 'crisis'. With HIV, poor nutrition, no shelter an infection can result in death.

But even if all of what I have said did not apply - I respectfully ask you to consider how women in healthy western countris would react if their access to hygienic sanitary ware was removed from them, and they were unable to use cotton wool, toilet paper, or have access to clean water when they were menstruating? Would they not see it as a crisis?

It is true that women historically had different methods, but it is not necessarily true that these methods are comfortable alongside the demands of modern lifestyles, and many of these methods are certainly not in sync with the basic levels of human rights that the world expects for everyone.

I think, Sebastian, that Jes may have been referring to things like this, where, while you conceded that tradition was not the last word on the subject of gay marriage, it was an argument in itself against making gay marriage legal. Which could easily, by extension, become an argument in favor of creating new laws to ensure that gay marriage remained illegal.

Sebastian: I can't imagine what you are talking about.

No, I thought you probably wouldn't be able to. I was specifically thinking of your support for autocratic government interference expressed here, but as I did say, I don't actually want you to pipe down: I was just momentarily suffering from a squawking irony-o-meter that I couldn't shut off.

I knew you were talking about abortion, Jes. I just thought it a rather silly association. But I won't fight about why I think so right at this moment.

But I won't fight about why I think so right at this moment.

Peace on earth, goodwill to all. :-D

Peace on earth, goodwill to all.
Terribly sorry, Jes, but all our stocks of those are on backorder. Might I interest you in some "Mild squabbling in the blogosphre, and recriminations all 'round" instead?

Ladies, some have used sea sponges.

Note the laughing part: I can easily see how it might be hard to get people to take this seriously. But think about it for a moment. Even you guys: what would you do?

I'd work on electing a few more women to Parliament, for one. The thought of some old boys' club bursting into laughter upon hearing of this issue is just disgusting to me.

Agreed, Steve, but campaigning for office in Zimbabwe, unless you're in the approved faction of ZANU/PF, requires the courage that Ms. Khumalo has shown.

If the popular opposition to Mugabe's government turns away from elections and into armed opposition, the government will probably respond the way the government of El Salvador did in the 1980s: arresting and torturing certain women buying disposable diapers and sanitary pads. Because they're pretty good bandages.

Sokwanele -- thanks for stopping by, and also for writing the post that made me aware of this in the first place.

I'm hesitant to ask what hostility and disgust menstruating women meet here, but ?

The very pervasiveness of phrases like, "Geez, what are you, on your period or something?" should go a long way towards clearing up that confusion.

Wait -- what's all this "period" nonsense? I thought women were just prone to madness and bleeding...

Anarch: don't forget our wandering wombs. Wandering wombs with teeth...

Well, I remember when Newt Gingrich opposed putting women soldiers in combat units on the grounds that we get "infections" every month.

I still don't know if he was ignorant as to what menstruation is, or if he thinks it's really gross, "just like" an infection.

Then I thought about the women in his life. Leaving aside the mystery of what they find appealing about him in the first place, he must be pretty ghastly in bed. So, if they say "Sorry, honey, but I've got that 'infection,' again. No sex for, oh, a week or two!" - maybe that's where he came up with it.

Ooooh, utera dentata!

I hop in this thread after a bit, I wanted to ask earlier, but didn't want to thread jack, but anarch's last convinces me the coast is clear.

Is there any culture where menstruation is treated in a non 'hostile' way (not the word I want to use, but I'm having trouble finding a precise word. Unclean? Impure?) This is not a field I have done a lot of reading in, but in reading about indigenous people, I always seem to get an impression that just about everywhere has a notion of menstruation as impure, though some treat menarch as the initiation of women into society, but that seems to have arisen from the notion of impurity rather than from some enlightened sense about the process. Are there some groups which have enlightened attitudes towards menstruation?

@libJap: I scanned through the articles in the museum of menstruation but could only find a vague reference to Celtic/Wiccan culture.

I actually don't expect much in the field of enlightened attitudes - the only time it is fun is the first time, since you will suddenly quite mature :). Afterwards it is usually only messy and uncomfortable. Maybe you could see it is an affirmation of fertility, but if you WANT kids you hate the proof that you are not pregnant, and if you don't want them it serves no purpose. All IMHO of course.

@Sokwanele: tnxs for dropping by and clarify. A lot of the things you mention are hugh problems - I never ment to imply anything else. I would just think that most of them are problems no matter wether there is easy acces to disposables or not (though I had never thought about problems like missing school because there is no solution for menstruating girls and such). I still think that trying to find solutions in the non-disposable area is preferrable. Use of disposables creates problems to. In waste, in becoming fixed costs... Which reminds me: doesn't the lack of disposable diapers cause many of the same problems? How are those solved?

@Jes: you switch from problems in highly urbanised environments to problems whilst working on the field all day. They are different problems, with different solutions.

Speaking of which, I've got a daughter on the verge. A daughter with fine-motor disability, so we're wondering how to work around that.

My husband was tought a course by a lady with weak and small hand/arms. Had to drink coffe with a straw, to illustrate. Great teacher though, and he helped her illustrate some course materials so we got to know her a bit better. I never asked about the how, but she managed whilst having her period. I assumed she used pads (inlays? pantiepads?), since those require least hand/arm coordination.

dm: I didn't even think it was fun the first time. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. Anyone. I had no supplies. I had no idea what to do. (Did I mention that I used to be morbidly shy?)

Possibly this explains why this story struck a chord.

Again, speaking of which: we keep my daughter-on-the-verge supplied always.

And we've briefed her extensively in advance. Or, rather, my wife has; she considers it her job, probably because her own mother told her nothing.

Which isn't to say that we've removed all possibility of trauma, but hopefully we've done some things to keep it from being major trauma. In this instance, I don't know if her already being different might help her or hurt her.

Which products to use in the long term might be a difficulty, too, because she's...well, very, very small for her age. Four feet, 55 pounds. Which is actually well above her prior trend, because up until very recently her height in inches and her weight were always the same.

And, hilzoy, I've been witness to something similar. ISTR that you and I are about the same age, and I recall a young lady being lead from the classroom in tears, not to return that day, and no one would say anything about why. It took me a little while to figure it out, but I never, ever forgot it. Which isn't to say that the situations are remotely similar, just that back then it wasn't something that was discussed.

Possibly this could be remedied if and when we aren't all so coy about it.

Oh, and we have the bonus effect that since daughter-on-the-verge has some intermittent being-able-to-hold-it issues that are probably related to CP, so she always has a change of clothes, including underwear, in her backpack.

Slarti: a word from experience: if someone is easily embarrassed, it's quite possible that literally no amount of supportive preparation will do the trick. certainly, I lacked neither information nor supportive preparation nor parental love and trust; and yet, when the moment arose, I was just consumed with mortification and couldn't say a word to anyone.

Supplies are good. So are discreet checkings of places where stuff might be washed (or: where flailing washing attempts might occur), where evidence of the failure of those attempts might, um, accumulate, and of supply levels.

Just saying. I'm glad my Mom caught on before I literally ran out of underwear, since I have no idea what I would have done at that point, coherent thought having been replaced by utter terror. (And, again, this terror was completely independent of what my actual parents had actually done, or what I expected of them. All that was absolutely fine, and also absolutely irrelevant.)

Thinking back to Hilzoy-esque embarrassment of my own, additional useful information for your daughter (which there's a good shot that you or your wife is already on top of) would be that everyone stains underwear at least sometimes -- it's not just her, so it's nothing to be embarrassed about. And that Oxiclean and hot water gets bloodstains out with remarkable completeness and ease.

hot water? COLD water (because of enzymes I thought) and best before it dries. Otherwise soak in cold water with salt.

We actually discussed it in class when I was about 11. Which girls had had their period yet, which boys had had wet dreams yet, what to expect in puberty. I was later than average, which might explain why I felt mature the first time... finally part of the club :)

@slartibartfest: bodymass and period don't always have a correlation. I know tall women with light periods and vice versa. And unless you use tampons/cups how heavy the period is is the only thing that determines size of products to use.

I started up a thread at TiO for those of you who might want to discuss this on a little less traveled corner of the internets.

dutchm: we had classes too, separated by gender. To this day I have no idea what the boys were taught. For some reason, all I remember was part of a film about how to deal with periods; the part that said: you can take showers (ed. note: who exactly would have thought otherwise?), but don't make them too hot (here, steam comes out of the shower nozzle), or too cold (here, little tiny ice cubes.)

All in all, pretty pointless.

I also recall one of my friends telling me that her mother (Greek) had thought, when she had her first period, that she had eaten too many tomatoes. Even then, this struck me as very odd.

To this day I have no idea what the boys were taught.

Probably something involving bananas and saran wrap, if my class was anything to go by.

I also recall one of my friends telling me that her mother (Greek) had thought, when she had her first period, that she had eaten too many tomatoes. Even then, this struck me as very odd.

Ummmmm... beets I could understand. But tomatoes?

@slartibartfest: bodymass and period don't always have a correlation. I know tall women with light periods and vice versa. And unless you use tampons/cups how heavy the period is is the only thing that determines size of products to use.

Clarification: I was referring to how standard sanitary products and how they might fit with her tiny little body. For instance, it would take an extraordinarily tiny pad to fit her underwear. Which is either a slightly baggy size 8 (children's) or a more snug size 6.

My recollection of early sex ed is as follows:

In grade school, we were taught nothing, and had to speculate on why the girls were being packed into the auditorium.

In junior high school, we were taught (along with the girls) about sexual reproduction, menstruation, contraception, and the mechanics of sexual intercourse. Certainly there was little or nothing on how to actually deal with budding sexuality. And given that that particular class was taught by a gym teacher that also taught shop, it was basically a shop class for human sexuality, minus the lessons of experience.

Or the experiential lessons?

@Hilzoy: The only seperate classes we had were gymnastics, and only in highschool (starts when you're about 12). This wasn't sexed, this was probabely 'general society' or something similar. We had the sex ed with biology in highschool, I think when I was 13 or so. Very technical and a lot less info than the average girl magazine had. But this was a long time ago, things might have improved since than. I forgot most and had to really re-educate myself when we tried to understand our fertility problems 20 years later.

@Slarti: my youngest just stopped using diapers, so I have a firm believe anything will fit if necessary :). More seriously: these days pads are really so very thin and come in so many sizes that I cannot imagine it being a problem. If her period turns out te be really heavy she'll still be able to use those thin maxipads and just fold the ends. As I once discovered in a needy situation: they fit the underwear of my 4yo when he was less than 100cm and about 16 kg (35 pounds).

dutchmarbel: our separate classes were just one or two class hours -- not a whole term or anything. They just herded us girls into one room and the boys into another, without much explanation. They told us about menstruation. What they told the boys I have no idea.

What they told the boys I have no idea.

What they told the boys is they have no idea...

hilzoy: gymnastics is a one or two class hours thing in the Netherlands - not a whole term one :).
Shame about the seperation. I think it is great to know about what happends with the other gender. I had never heard or wet dreams for boys before - and I currently have three boys to raise who will encounter the phenomena in the next decade. My spouse didn't know about it and was scared to death when it happened to him - we hope to avoid that with our threesome.

Update here on international donations, and Mooncups.

I'm too curious - I always want to know the what and the why :)

hilzoy:

you can take showers (ed. note: who exactly would have thought otherwise?), but don't make them too hot (here, steam comes out of the shower nozzle), or too cold (here, little tiny ice cubes.)

Also including "no vigorous exercise!" and a girl bouncing vigorously on the back of a horse as example? You might be referring to Disney's "Story of Menstruation" (1946).

Thank you for the update.

No Problemo - "Ladies, some have used sea sponges."

What part of 'nowhere reliable to wash things' do you not get? A dirty sea sponge, presuming that such an exotic item could be purchased by these women, is no better than a dirty rag. Sea sponge isn't an inherently self-cleaning material in my experience.

Plus, Zimbabwe is landlocked, so sea sponges would have to be imported using the hard currency that Zimbabwe does not have.

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