The women of Tra Vinh, my sisters by blood?
Let’s talk about menstruation. For the sake of irony, let’s call it (wo)menstruation — from the Latin “menstruus,” meaning “monthly.” What is it?
Older than patriarchy and as inevitable as death, menstruation for a woman can represent various things ranging from a period (pun intended) of the shedding of uterine lining to a major socio-economic burden. The latter is the case in most rural areas in underdeveloped countries. However, women in developed countries are yet to be completely sheltered from their worries. Using an example that’s close to home for most readers, in the U.S., 35 states continue to tax menstruation products. It’s outrageous to tax such a basic human necessity. Indeed, not having access to menstrual products is a direct threat to a woman’s wellbeing. According to an analysis of government data collected by The New York Times, “About 6 million people receiving food stamps report they have no other income.” Many women in situations like this are forced to sell their food stamps in order to buy pads and tampons — risking their health in an unnecessary tradeoff.
In countries like Vietnam, statistics regarding menstruation do not exist due to the taboo surrounding the subject. In many cultures, periods have been given a mythical status and are not spoken about. Despite the Vietnamese government spending $17.2 billion dollars annually on healthcare and providing arguably the best quality of healthcare in Southeast Asia, using menstrual products is overlooked and considered a luxury. In countries such as Vietnam and China, only 2% of the population use tampons due to the hygienic concerns and the stigma around virginity loss. This is where my journey begins.
The women of rural Vietnam, the strongest, most resilient women I have ever encountered, found themselves helpless in the face of the almighty period. On a volunteering trip to a province south of my home city of Ho Chi Minh, it occurred to me that I had become accustomed to injustice and poverty. The job I was sent to do consisted of visiting the houses — or, should I say, huts — of the needy villagers of Tra Vinh — a near-impossible job considering most of the citizens in the province were minorities living in remote upland areas with a poor natural resource base. These are the poorest people in all of Vietnam.
It dawned on me that my understanding of poverty didn’t even scratch the surface. I thus made it my duty to go back as often as I could and obtain a broader understanding of the various issues plaguing the region. I went back at least once a year for 3 years.
Although menstruation remains a socially stigmatized condition in most contexts, and one that is infrequently discussed in coeducational (or even female-only) encounters, a girl or woman’s menstruating status can easily be hidden in high-resource contexts. By contrast, in many LMICs (low middle income countries), where girls receive very limited puberty guidance, and the cost of mass-produced sanitary materials is high, the inadequacy (or complete lack) of safe, private, clean water, sanitation, and disposal facilities presents substantial additional environmental barriers to MHM (menstrual hygiene management).
Year after year, I was introduced to girls, laying on their hammocks, waiting for their flow to cease so they could carry on their education. Families had to choose between hygiene products or food, and the bread winner (without exception, the man) chose the latter. This is in no way an attack on men. Can you really blame them?
It should not be either/or. Menstrual products should be free and accessible to all, just like any other basic human necessity. According to Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.” Why should that not include menstrual products?
My solution was to take matters into my own hands and act. Vietnam is home for me. I have never lived anywhere else, and I am truly thankful to have been hosted and welcomed with open arms as an expatriate. With the support of my school, the French International of Ho Chi Minh City’s administration, I was able to open a club which quickly turned into a recognized nonprofit by my school and l’AFV, the association of French people living in Vietnam. I chose to call it Soutien Féminin, which translates to “feminine support,” seeing as my original goal was to provide free menstrual products to women in desperate need.
Through the endless support I have received from family, friends, and Hoan My, a private Vietnamese hospital, a year's worth of pads and hygiene products were provided to more than 230 women. The project then expanded to various hygiene products for boys and girls; from toothbrushes to wet wipes, Soutien Féminin offered a variety of products of everyday use. The last step was finally going to Tra Vinh province and visiting the marginalized families and a couple of public schools to not only donate the products but most importantly preach the importance of basic hygiene on a daily basis.
Conclusively, as said by the remarkable Simone de Beauvoir, “The point is not for women to simply take power out of men’s hands, since that wouldn’t change anything about the world. It’s a question precisely of destroying that notion of power.” This quote is relevant in this context as, in the U.S., most laws regarding women’s health are voted on primarily by men. As of publication, 127 women hold seats in the United States Congress, comprising just 23.7% of the 535 members. 25 women (25%) serve in the U.S. Senate, and 102 women (23.4%) serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Hold your representatives accountable, support organizations such as Period Equity on eliminating taxes on menstrual products, don't be afraid to talk about taboo health topics.