I open the same door that I have opened about a million times in my life. Today it is different. I’m repeating all the tips my sister gave me over and over in my mind. I’m early for my gymnastics training… luckily…
That morning I woke up, did my normal routine, until I got to the bathroom. There was a tiny little stain in my panties. I realized the day had come, I got my period. I thought about the day that was ahead of me, taking the train to school, having classes, then taking the train from school to gymnastics for my usual training.
As I open the door the familiar uncomfortable scent greets me. The heat in the tiny room grips around me, while I firmly hold on to my tampon. Still repeating all the tips my sister gave me over and over in my mind. I sit down, take the pad out of my panties and look at the tampon. It is show time, I feel very mature and ready to do this. It is my first day of my period and I immediately have to use a tampon, because I am a gymnast and have to do my sport. My first trial goes wrong, I try again and again. I’m starting to sweat and panic a little. The heat of the cabin and the smell are suffocating me. My sister had given me different plans depending on how much I would struggle. I finally go for her last plan as the tears are already in my eyes. It works! I take a sigh of relief as I sit back on the toilet, sweat drops running down my face and still watery eyes. But I did it! I can now go ahead and do my sport without feeling too uncomfortable.
About half an hour later my sister also arrives, I tell her all about my adventure and she tells me it will get easier. That training, things go fine. I am constantly a bit nervous that it will move, but of course nothing happens. I’m safe and comfortable. I had my first experience on how to put in a tampon in a comfortable setting, I had all of my sister’s tips, a clean toilet, running water and many back-up plans.
Years later, I open the rusty door to the bathroom in a school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A familiar smell reaches me as I step into the tiny room. The door doesn’t lock. I am firmly holding on to my tampon as my brain is making over-hours trying to figure out how I am going to do this. There is no water, also not in its close proximity, no toilet paper, no lock; the toilet is open to everyone and anyone and I feel highly uncomfortable. As I leave the toilet I am still holding on to my tampon. I ended up not switching it.
I try to imagine what it must be like for a young girl in Ethiopia to get her period for the first time and to walk through that door. It must be pretty scary; there is little information, a lack of good infrastructure, access to products is not easy and although tax has been banned for these products, it is still expensive, and on top of that, a stigma that makes it hard to talk about menstruation is ever present. Altogether it seems like a very intimidating environment and experience.
This girl will probably be using a pad (if she can afford it). She may avoid going to school or avoid doing sports. If she does go to school she may be told that she does not have to participate in sports because she is menstruating. As nice and considerate as this may seem, it would mean that 25% of the year, these girls are limited and told they cannot do a certain thing because of their bodily functioning.
Instead we need to educate women and men. We need to ensure that they are aware of the different products that are available and we need to ensure access to these products. In the year that I have lived in Addis Ababa, I have never seen a tampon in a store. I have talked to many women and most of them have told me that they always and only use pads and that they are scared of using internal products. That is okay, they do not have to use internal products if they don’t want to. But they should be well-informed about them and they should be available. Moreover, if pads are not comfortable enough to do sports in, they must be offered an alternative that suits the context, such as period panties.
Young girls and women should not be told every single month that they do not have to participate because they are on their period. Instead, they need to be empowered to participate, no matter what. Being on your period is not something unnatural or unhealthy, it is something normal and necessary and it should thus be accommodated to. Toilets or pit latrines in public spaces all over the world need to have water and soap, a lock and a trash bin. They need to be safe and offer enough of a level of comfort that a woman can take care of her period. It is unjust to tell a huge part of the population that 25% of their year, they are limited in their abilities to participate in normal societal activities.
Author: Veronique Sprenger