Breaking Down the Walls of Period Stigma
by Vanessa dos Santos
Being on your period can vary from a small inconvenience to enough pain and discomfort to call in a sick day. For many, that ‘time of the month’ becomes a crippling factor to their advancement. It is estimated that 1 out of 10 girls doesn’t finish schooling because they are not able to manage their periods hygienically and with dignity. I spoke to Filipa Carreira the founder of the passion project turned brand, Wamina, which sells reusable pads targeting women and girls from low-income backgrounds who cannot afford disposable pads in Mozambique. Carreira has a mission to empower women all over the country andor Carreira, it starts with the knowledge of our bodies. In our conversation she unpacked the reality of so many girls and women concerning their health, and the societal restrictions on awareness of their bodies.
Girls in Mozambique spreading the Wamina message
Based in the capital city, Maputo, Carreira works on a small team, striving to ‘inspire, motivate, empower’ girls and women. During her fieldwork on a sanitation project when she was working as a consultant, Carreira found that the study used only men as units of analysis, neglecting sanitation needs of women. During this project her period began again after three years of using the implant contraceptive, which made her highly aware of needing sanitary products. Carreira started researching menstrual hygiene habits in Mozambique. She spoke to 800 students– 455 boys and 230 girls in four high schools about periods. When I asked why her team was predominantly made up of men, she replied she had difficulty mobilizing women. For her, it is always preferable to have women working with Wamina; but many are “skeptical” or hesitant to speak freely about periods. Yet, students opened up to Carreira; “I think these taboos are more about adults not being comfortable with certain topics. It’s not [so with] the younger crowd, because they are curious about these things.”
What she discovered in her study is shocking but common in developing economies. Many girls who spoke to Carreira told her they had been unaware of what periods were when theirs began. Many had believed they might die as soon as they had it. Even in the education system, the topic is often ignored, “a lot of teachers actually skip those lessons because they are uncomfortable to teach them”. From her research in Maputo, 61% of girls miss school during their period. So The idea of Wamina was born. Carreira tested the reusable pads and the process for changing them throughout the day. Their pads can hold up to about 8 hours, absorbing blood and sweat. Many girls reported that the disposable pads they accessed through street vendors or other informal markets would give them “allergies”. Carreira explains that this a consequence of the poor quality of the pads being sold, “[Mozambique] pirates everything, including pads. You might buy ‘Premium Always’ pads and then they rip because they are fake.”
Carreira’s approach to Wamina is in contrast with the common paternalism of development projects. She was recently invited to a TV program to discuss the challenges facing women’s health in Mozambique. She encountered a typical attitudes towards development that often look down upon things like low-cost, reusable pads, not seeing them as progress towards health, but rather stigmatizing it as a poor way to tackle hygiene. She says, “There was a doctor there, she looked at the pads and she almost told people not to buy them. There, unfortunately, is a big prejudice among the urban population, especially the more well off, that refuses to believe that people actually need these things. There’s a discrimination of poverty from within.”
This tendency to ignore how class affects the free movement and livelihood of women often means that the needs of poorer women and women in developing countries are not considered in women’s health spaces. Wamina’s model responds to the gender, race and class issues that affect how women deal with their periods in Mozambique.
With 77% of the girls in Carreria’s study stating that they feel negatively about their periods, there is a reinforcement of notion that women are unclean. A common term used to call their period, “sujidade”, which literally means filth, reaffirms this narrative. There is also a common belief that girls should not have sex when they are on their period for fear of their partner becoming sick or dying.
Half of Wamina’s mission is to empower girls through their dialogue-creating workshops put on with the help of private donors in orphanages and schools. One aim is to motivate women to speak to their daughters about what happens to their bodies. “If [parents] are able to talk to their daughters about their period, then they will be able to talk to them about sex and teenage pregnancy. We are trying to open the channels of communication also within the community.”
A Wamina reusable pad
“We work with [young women’s] self esteem. If you don’t have self-esteem, even if you have the information available to you, you won’t have the courage to make decisions. It gives girls the confidence to say no to [everyday pressures they may encounter around sex and their bodies]. They understand that they have a choice and they also understand the consequences of all the choices available to them”.
UNESCO’s study on menstruation, published in 2014, states girls are more likely to be removed from school during their periods or as soon as they hit their puberty in order to avoid pregnancies or because her family prefers that their daughter get married. This goes back to the importance of not just educating girls, but also educating adult women too about the social aspects of menstruation. Carreira makes the point “We cannot get confused between culture and poverty. There is a lot of things we blame on culture which is really just an expression of poverty. For example, child marriages are not just culture, people are poor, that’s why they see the benefits of selling off a girl.”
What has proven to be the biggest challenge for Wamina at this stage is distribution. Carreira admits that it has been difficult, believing pads should be given out for free, especially if condoms are. At the moment the pads aren’t produced inside the country and Carreira herself mostly self-finances Wamina along with a few donations. She is struggling to make prices affordable and ensuring that her products reach the targeted communities. One of the goals for this year is to start production within the country. “Right now we are importing because we are testing it. We can’t just start a factory on a whim.” This would change the pricing of the pads and reach more people, aiming to move into more provinces this year.
Like Carreira says, these issues and the spread of misinformation are just another symptom of a larger problem in how we look at gender equality and equity. Wamina’s approach helps us refocus on how something as simple as our period illuminates the intersections of identity. Depending on class, culture and geography, there is a difference in the way women experience this natural part of our lives. Carreira’s work in Mozambique does not solely belong in the context of Africa but can be applied to Western countries to help us broaden the discussion of sanitary products, making this an intersectional issue.
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