Following up on my previous post, Bleeding Over Africa, about campaigns to distribute disposable menstrual products for African girls and women, I wanted to flag up a site which is running a more sustainable campaign.

Goods for GirlsGoods 4 Girls are seeking donations of (new!) cloth pads, either home made or bought specially, for a project distributing these in conjunction with aid organisations who can ensure that they are used to best effect.

There are links to patterns if you feel up to making your own.
Edited to add: the campaign runs out of Seattle. If you live in the UK, making them and shipping them to the US for onward shipping to Africa may not be the best plan. You can still buy them via the internet and have them delivered direct to the Seattle address.  🙂

(Via amygeekgrl @ blogher)

I can’t personally vouch for them, obviously, but this seems like a far better effort than the idea of sending out disposable pads.

Check it out!


I have been neglecting my poor old blog of late, as I’ve worked on white noise and learned some things about my own white privileged attitudes and behaviours. Mostly I’ve been learning how much of a clue I haven’t got. Ho-hum. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to finish East of Eden so I can get on with reading something more enlightening, and the search for Pink Rabbit goes on… you wouldn’t believe how much money he is making by selling himself on Ebay.

And in the midst of all this, what I want to write about is knickers.

The other day I was walking past Debenhams in Gloucester and I was just struck by the lingerie displayed in the windows on mannequins. Honestly, I wish I’d had a camera. It just struck me how flimsy and hateful these items of “clothing” really are. I’m not just talking about those stupid strings at the back that cut your bum in half, I’m talking about the fronts, I’m talking about the bottoms.

I don’t know about your body, but for me the area of flesh that a pair of comfortable knickers needs to cover is a pretty fair size. I want a gusset that covers my entire vulva, and then I want the fabric at the front to cover all my hairy bits and leave a wide enough band of fabric for the sides to be comfortable against my hips and for the back to keep itself well out of my bumcrack.

Do these knickers look comfy to you?

The gusset can’t possible cover a vulva fully. Just by looking at it I can feel labial irritation. And the sides are so stringy that they would either fall off you or cut into you. But the front? How can a woman wear this without removing her pubic hair? Is she to have fuzzy bits exposed all around? Somehow I think not, since that furry image is in no way compatible with the sleekness that these lingerie makers are trying to sell. There is a reason why all lingerie models are completely hairless down there.

How about these knickers? Look comfy to you? Those strings again, and this time the front is actually transparent. Nowhere for your ugly pubes to hide. Wax or be damned.

I mean, seriously, when we have to buy knickers like this to please our husbands or boyfriends* – how can we retain our dignity? How can we avoid the conclusion that that hair down there has got to go. Or at least, that it has got to be tamed, trimmed, perhaps delicately sculpted into a heart shape and pinked with Betty dye?

[*I don’t do that stuff any more, and as long as I remain free I will never go back to it – but there was a time, young’uns, when I too believed that “sexy” (as defined) was the thing to be. Thank you feminism.]

And I mean, seriously, when we wear these string-gusseted torture devices, and it irritates our labia – how can we avoid (if feminism hasn’t taught us better) wondering whether our protruding labia are the problem? If we can’t even wear comfortable knickers, then how can we sensibly resist the cosmetic surgeons who promise that they can correct the “problems of discomfort” that stem from our “enlarged labia”*?

[*Yes, they do – see here and here – what contempt for woman they have.]

As you can see, this is not an exact replica of the real thing, but it’s not bad 🙂

While doing it I had a few ideas about how I could do it better next time e.g. to make the rim a bit wider and more stepped. However, rather than spend another week working on improving my first attempt, I’m just going to give it to you as it is.

Yes I did actually write down the pattern, and here it is…


What a great week – it has flown by! It has filled me with new enthusiasm for blogging too. Hooray! Not wanting it all to be over quite yet, I leave you with this, from Womanwords:

By the end of the C16th, snatch was used allusively to refer to hasty or illicit or mercenary sexual intercourse (with a woman) e.g. “I could not abide marriage, but as a rambler I took a snatch when I could get it.” (1621) Hence since the end of the C19th, snatch came to be used as slang for the vagina…

“The association of the vagina with a snapping jaw* – the vagina dentata – is a symbol of male castration fear which has appeared in primitive legend the world over. In psychoanalytic terms this is explained by H R Hays as follows: “The sucking infant, which had a cannibalistic desire to consume the mother, projects an instinctive memory of its own sadism into the female vagina and transforms it into a biting mouth.**” (The Dangerous Sex, 1966) This memory is one which can be revived in the male by heterosexual intercourse after which the once erect penis goes limp and thus seems to “die”, or is perhaps “killed” by the snatching vagina of a woman, viewed as a sorceress.”

* Sic. The vagina is (literally, if you go by etymology) a “sheath”, so cannot actually snap, jawlike or otherwise. The labia though? Yeah, jaws R us 🙂

** As the mother of a sucking infant old enough to articulate her feelings about nursing, I can confirm that she does not wish to eat me, sadistically or otherwise. She just wants to eat the mo out of the “ends” (her latest self-created terminology***) of my boobs. From which I conclude – even apart from the improbability of a child projecting its “own sadism” into women’s vaginas without any prompting from weirdos like H R Hays and his ilk – that this theory is complete and unmitigated poppycock.

*** Which is an improvement on her previous decision to christen my left side “Mo” and my right side “Booby”. This led to a scene in which – after she had finished “Mo” and was annoyed that it was taking too long to change sides – she stood up and shouted “I WANT BOOBY! I WANT TO EAT BOOBY NOW!” Which, for the avoidance of doubt, was not intended by her to suggest that she actually had a cannibalistic desire to consume me.

I have written a few times on this blog about the practice of FGM as a horrific violation of women’s bodies that, apart from stripping them of bodily integrity, also has many long and short term health risks. Today I want to think not about why it must stop now (duh) but about how it can stop, what we can do to actually make it stop. Fine words and awareness-raising are just so much hand-wringing unless we actually get out there and make something happen.

The most obvious step is to change the laws. There are still many countries where FGM is lawful or where only the most extreme forms are prohibited. And we need to ensure that no country will refuse asylum or refugee status to a girl or woman fleeing from FGM. It is only very recently that even in the UK the risk of being subject to FGM has been recognised as giving a girl or woman the right to be granted refugee status here.

But legal changes can only ever be a small part of the solution. There is no point in changing the law unless people will comply with the law. This means either rigorous law enforcement or more realistically (especially but not only in countries where police forces are overstretched, underfunded, uninterested or plain corrupt) voluntary abandonment of the practice by the communities where it is currently entrenched.

How can communities be persuaded to abandon FGM? The obvious answer is to tell them that FGM is dangerous, and a violation of women’s human rights and human dignity, that it can kill. But many adherents to the practice know that already, and they still do it. So telling them again and highlighting the dangers as best we can might help, slowly, in some cases: but it won’t eradicate FGM any more than telling people that smoking is bad for them will eradicate smoking.

So telling them not to do it doesn’t work. Telling them how bad it is doesn’t work. Why not? Clearly there are reasons people want to carry out FGM on their girl children which go deeper than “because we’ve always done it”. These communities experience benefits from FGM which outweigh the health risk to the child, which outweigh any right to wholeness that she may have, which outweigh any risk of legal repercussions.

The Population Council has an FGM (FGC) page with lots of resources about anti-FGM actions that have been tried, and evaluation research that has been carried out to identify the best approaches to FGM eradication. I’m not even going to try and summarise the various reports and assessments on there, but having read through a number of them I can suggest that a few common strands do emerge.

One is that the most successful approaches were participatory, involving the whole community in discussing FGM and thinking about their own behaviour, with a view to making and sustaining a voluntary commitment to changing the behaviour.

Another is the importance of projects being focussed on specific, whole communities. The admirable organisation Rainbo has developed a framework (which it calls “Women’s Empowerment and Community Consensus”, or WECC) which recognises that communities cling onto FGM because they get something out of it and that we must therefore do more than threaten or preach: we must also understand the community needs that FGM satisfies, so that we can help the women and men who “benefit” from FGM to find alternative ways of satisfying those needs.

This approach can be seen in the following two reports, which aimed at designing an approach to FGM eradication focussed on specific communities by looking at the reasons why FGM is practised within those communities:

  • A 2004 Frontiers report found that the reasons for cutting in the Islamic Somali community in Kenya included “religious obligation, family honor, preserving virginity as a prerequisite for marriage, prevention of extramarital as well as premarital sex, and aesthetics” (but not as an initiation rite). The approach recommended was then a religious-based approach, combined with medical information, to show that this is a traditional practice that is contrary to Islamic dictates because of the harm it does.
  • A similar report focussed on the Christian Abagusii community in Kenya where the reasons cited were “tradition, cultural identity, symbolic maturity, control of women’s sexuality and fidelity, and marriageability” and where it was found that despite being illegal, most cutting is performed (albeit unofficially) in clinics by nurses and midwives. Here the approach recommended was to mobilise health workers by educating them about legal and medical issues, addressing the financial incentives they have for performing FGM (they are well paid), and encouraging them to advise their clients against the practice. The involvement of health workers and education about health risks was already having some benefits in reducing the severity of the cutting, and in some cases limiting cutting to a symbolic prick of the clitoris.

Finally, sadly, it is clear that FGM abandonment is a lengthy process, that does not happen overnight.

One model for this process is the progressive diffusion of anti-FGM attitudes. For example, this might involve “converting” community members and encouraging them to go out and “convert” their own family and friends so that eventually the tiny minority who are prepared to stand up against FGM within that community grows and grows, with the expectation that eventually not cutting will be the norm. There is evidence of some success at this approach, although no evidence of any community where this approach has made a dramatic impact even over the long term.

A different model is to involve a whole community, a whole village, so that the community arrives together at a decision to stop FGM – each member of that community lending support (and peer pressure) to the change. This again cannot be done overnight. First, you have to get the whole village involved in actually thinking about and questioning FGM – using medical and human rights information distributed through health and literacy programs; encouraging religious leaders and other influential individuals including health workers to openly condemn the practice; and empowering grassroots anti-FGM advocates. The next step is to support people through the transition from thinking about change to actually making the change, with an element being to address fears of social exclusion for uncut women: alternative rites is one strategy; another is to bring whole villages to make an “FGM-free” declaration that will help to reduce fears of ostracism. There is evidence that this whole-community approach can work in the longer term.

So what can we do? It is frustrating that the process is slow, it is frustrating that there is no easy answer, no quick fix. No petition to sign, no angry letter to write, no big corporation to boycott. What can we do? As outsiders, it seems to me that all we can do is to support the grass-roots movements and projects, to support people who are actually out there doing it. Donating what we can, and hand-wringing otherwise.

It seems so little, and meanwhile the cutting goes on.

This is the sort of thing that only a woman who has done footprinting with toddlers could contemplate: it takes a really surprising amount of organisation.

There are presently a number of campaigns going on to highlight and raise money for girls and women in developing countries, especially African countries, especially but not only Zimbabwe where, according to an often-quoted statistic, a packet of tampons costs half a month’s wages and women cannot afford them. (Having said that, they often can’t afford food either, even if there were food to buy.)

The problem is that girls and women find themselves unable to manage their periods hygienically or discreetly. This can cause various problems – it can make it difficult or impossible for a girl to attend school or a woman to work if they are unable to manage their blood, with obvious short and long term consequences for them and for their families. Some girls may also wish to hide their menarche from their fathers or other relatives because they know that this sign of sexual maturation is likely to lead to their being taken out of school and married off. So, yes, it is a big problem.

My concern, though, is to be clear on the root causes of these problems, and to understand the motivation of those who seem to offer help. Only then can we have any sort of idea what to do next.

The two big campaigns I have heard about are “Dignity, Period” which seems to be funded by Bodyform (who as Erika points out are owned by Nestle) and “Protecting Futures”, a North American campaign funded by Always/Tampax (owned by Proctor & Gamble). Where names like Nestle and P&G are involved, I am on my guard. Erika sets out pretty much every reason we have to be worried about the involvement of these big companies in the promotion of disposable sanpro for developing countries.

[Correction: Bodyform is not in fact owned by Nestle but by SCA, another global corporation, albeit with a less toxic reputation.]

Infant formula was heavily promoted by big-hitting global companies in poor countries, companies who presented themselves as giving aid and doing good works, companies who evidently did not care that they were destroying a healthy culture of breastfeeding, destroying women’s knowledge of breastfeeding in favour of a dangerous and unsustainable artificial product. They did not care that women in countries with little or no access to clean running water could not use formula milk without creating an extremely serious risk of killing their babies through infections, diarrhoea, gastroenteritis and so on. They did it anyway.

A question I would like to ask Bodyform and Always/Tampax – how much money are you putting into promoting this cause, and advertising the campaigns? and how much money are you raising? Would it be cheaper just to buy a shipment of sanpro and send it over? Or is that missing the point?

Yes, it’s missing the point. Of course it is. The point of these campaigns is not to raise money or awareness or to do what would be most useful to the women and girls who are actually at the butt end of the problem – the point is to promote Bodyform, Always and Tampax in the West and to open up markets in the developing world. The point is to make us believe that BigSanPro is benevolent, and to make women in developing countries believe (as we already believe) that they need Western pads and tampons instead of more sustainable and/or traditional solutions.

Why isn’t dispoable sanpro aid a good solution? Here’s a few reasons:

  • When the campaign is over and the freebies have run out, the women will be in the same position as they were before.
  • Actually, they may be in a worse position because they may find that their traditional knowledge has been undermined and overwhelmed by the Disposable Message.
  • Actually, they may be in a worse position because used sanitary towels will be piling up in the streets*.
  • Actually, they may be in a worse position because they will be contributing to carbon emissions and environmental damage that is most likely to affect, guess who? – the very people that this aid has “helped”.

(*When do the rubbish collectors come round in Zimbabwe? Tuesdays? Thursdays?)

OK, so what might help?

Starting with actual menstruation products, I’ve heard recently about two projects which seem to have much more mileage in them than the Great Western Disposable Solution:

1. In an edition of From Our Own Correspondent at the weekend (I think you’ve just about time to listen to it, if you catch this post in the next day or two – it’s towards the end of the World Service edition), there was an item about a project in Uganda where a small factory has been set up to turn weeds into sanitary pads. Apparently these plants grow everywhere, and they are really absorbent naturally so don’t need to be processed anything like as much as the paper or cotton-based pads, so they are much much cheaper than buying imported Western sanpro. I imagine that they will also decompose much more rapidly than Western sanpro which is obviously also important. Women work in the factory, earning money to support themselves and their families, and everyone wins.

2. Poverty Action Lab are doing some research in Nepal into the viability of menstrual cups as a sustainable way for women in developing countries to manage their periods in an age where (sadly!) sitting on moss or straw for a few days just isn’t a realistic option any more. Every reader of this blog now knows what a fan I am of menstrual cups and even if you don’t it must be obvious that this is a far more sustainable solution than paper pads: you only need one of them, and it can be reused month after month for years; they are relatively easy to keep clean even without access to running water (rinse or wipe as often as you can, then boil it up once a month); no waste, no pad-miles, no bloody pads piling up all around the town… What’s not to like?

Turning away from sustainable menstrual products, I want to briefly mention some other issues that are highly relevant.

Access to clean, running water. If people had plenty of clean water to use, they could wash their pads, mooncups, camel skins, or whatever and would not need expensive, wasteful Western “luxuries” like disposable pads.

(And, apart from the 70,001 other problems of not having access to clean water, there is this one: if you cannot wash your hands after you change a pad, then you probably aren’t going to go to work/school even with paper pads. Ironically, the very thing that makes washable pads difficult to manage also makes the “saviour” paper pads difficult to manage. )

Access to clean, running water. This one’s so unbelievably important that I’ll say it again. Give some money to Water Aid (an actual charity, unlike Nestle or P&G). You can buy two taps for £12. Now that’s what I call a Christmas present.

Give them water, and they will go.

Appropriate toilet facilities at schools. Girls don’t go to school while they are menstruating because they do not want to deal with their blood in a shared, open latrine.

Give them privacy, and they will go.

Culture of shame, pubescent marriage and sexual harrassment. Girls don’t go to school while they are menstruating because they don’t want people to know. That’s a Western problem too – a blob of menses on a pair of white jeans being spotted by a boy they fancy is probably the most embarrassing thing that most Western teenage girls could think of… Yet in many places the girls face much worse than embarrassment: menstruation may be accompanied by genuine ostracism, by horror and disgust; menstruation as a sign of sexual maturation may be accompanied by increasing sexual harassment, even by male teachers, and by increasing pressure from relatives to get married, even before school is out.

Give them safety, and they will go.

Further reading:

New York Times: Another School Barrier for African Girls: No Toilet

best quote: In Guinea, enrollment rates for girls from 1997 to 2002 jumped 17 percent after improvements in school sanitation, according to a recent Unicef report. The dropout rate among girls fell by an even bigger percentage. Schools in northeastern Nigeria showed substantial gains after Unicef and donors built thousands of latrines, trained thousands of teachers and established school health clubs, the agency contends.

New York Times: A Not-So-Simple Plan To Keep African Girls In School

best quote: The question, of course, is what’s in it for Procter? A great deal, marketing experts say. For one, girls who use free pads today can turn into paying customers when they grow out of the school programs. They could persuade their mothers and aunts to use the products. “When you need to change a culture, it’s good strategy to start with the younger generation,” said Jill Avery, an assistant professor of marketing at the Simmons School of Management… Lisa Jones Christensen, an assistant professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, who is familiar with Procter’s philanthropy programs, says that Procter receives special treatment when its containers hit Kenya’s docks. “No one is saying, ‘Just unload the pads, leave the boxes of Tide,’ ” she said. “This program is giving P&G a license to operate in Africa for all its products.”

School Sanitation toolkit

worst quote: Girls will not use [toilet] facilities that are situated in an isolated location because of the risk of rape or harassment. This problem of rape and harassment at school toilets has been mainly reported for the Southern part of Africa. In a Medical Research Council survey conducted in South African schools in 2000, over 30 percent of girls reported being raped at school.

Finally, I’d like to give an honourable mention to Grace, who is indeed a very nice woman, and inspired this post.

Next Page »