Earlier this year marathon runner, Kiran Ghandi, made a really brave decision right before she began running this year’s London Marathon. She has subsequently gone viral, and as such been the target of a great deal of abuse. I can’t say that it’s a decision I could have made, even if I did ever actually run (I don’t run, I get about 10 metres and give up, I much prefer walking), and I doubt that many of the women I know who have participated in a number of 10K’s, half or full marathons, would ever consider this. But however I feel about the decision, and it was definitely a brave one, it does make me wonder whether it has opened people’s eyes to the question of periods, menstruation, and the developing world.
Turkey certainly does not come into the same category as many countries in the world because here there are plenty of products available. Well there are in the supermarkets, but I’ve never gone deeper to question whether they are accessible or affordable to all women in more rural and poverty stricken areas. And a quick Google search only really relates this issue to subsaharan African countries or the indian sub continent. But there is most definitely one area of this country where it is an issue. Turkey now houses (tents) approximately 1.8 million Syrian refugees both in camps close to the borders and, for the more well off or fortunate refugees, throughout a number of the larger cities. Those in the camps are dependent on the aid that is sent or given to them. While donors may think immediately of food, water, clothes, shelter, or blankets, the issue of sanitary products is often less widely mentioned.
Most women in the West forget that actually being able to go and buy whatever product suits us best is a luxury that so many other women simply do not have. In fact I get mildly irritated that I have to remember to bring a supply of Tampax with me, because they are not sold here. They used to be, years ago, but even then only certain chemists stocked them but gradually they became more and more scarce. You can get a brand of non applicator tampon here called OB, but that’s the only one you can find in the stores.
It wasn’t till the Gölcük earthquake in 1999, and large numbers of families not only losing their homes but their livelihoods too, that I first became aware of the necessity for donations and cultural implications behind sanitary products. As in many emergency relief situations, relatively small organisations and individuals collect, organise, and frequently deliver care packages. They often contain clothes, blankets, toys etc, and in some cases even sanitary products–but not always suitable ones. Well meaning donors had sent tampons rather than towels, and I read at the time how women’s organisations were having to explain to women that they were perfectly safe for their daughters to use. The myth surrounding such products was, and probably still is, that tampons would destroy a girl’s virginity. My ex colleague Ustun explains how even she wasn’t sure how to answer their questions on this, and she is one of the most worldly, radical, progressive, and campaigning Turkish women I have been lucky enough to know and work with. Yet even she advises the women that perhaps young girls shouldn’t use them, hopefully more to protect them from future accusations and the implications that can have. How pervasive the misconception of what exactly virginity is, and what can ‘destroy’ it can be seen on numerous sites with girls questioning this.
It does sadden me that such attitudes and misconceptions continue to exist. It also saddens me that act’s like Kiran’s are met with torrents of abuse rather than shock at the issue she is trying to highlight. I have stood in a supermarket queue here, with a Turkish friend mortified that the cashier is a man, while her own sister thinks nothing of telling her dad that he should buy her a packet of Orkid as he walks out the door. Typically brilliant Turkish contrast within one family.
I’m not saying that it’s something we need to start shouting about, or wearing T-shirts to declare. Just that Kiran’s decision was extraordinarily brave, and something that needs to be considered. And if you don’t fancy donating to an organisation which helps women in countries where access to low cost products is limited or non existent, at least consider the next time there is a natural disaster, refugee crisis, or a call for aid packages to be sent across the world by a small charity, you would be giving a great deal if you donated pads.