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On menstrual justice in Lebanon

On menstrual justice in Lebanon

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Life Women’s Rights Basic Rights

Monday 18 December 202304:39 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

كيف نفكّر معاً في العدالة الحيضيّة؟

Many women in Lebanon are deprived of their right to safely access menstrual products. Difficulty accessing health centers and obtaining feminine hygiene products such as sanitary pads, in addition to shortages of clean water and safe access to bathrooms, significantly hinders the daily lives of many women across Lebanon. This is exacerbated by a lack of access to information and health and sexual education.

Women are susceptible to physical and psychological suffering, as their right to work and study in fair and safe conditions is deprived. As a result, women are forced to resort to unsafe or hygienic modes of menstrual relief, such as using cloth or the same sanitary pad for more than 6 hours.

Recently, and especially since the economic crisis, ‘menstrual poverty’ among Lebanese women has increased, as the lack of support on secondary products has made it difficult for many women to purchase the necessary supplies for their menstrual cycles.

Towards menstrual justice

These conditions necessitate legal reform, ensuring the provision of menstrual and sexual health supplies, their availability and affordability in workplaces, schools, and public spaces. This would acknowledge that these are not luxury items but essential products, and requires removing social stigmas surrounding menstruation, dispelling misconceptions, and providing monthly leave without deducting from wages.

Various countries, including China and certain Indian states, have menstrual leave laws, conditional upon a medical report affirming that the woman suffers from severe menstrual pain. The Spanish Parliament passed a law in 2023 providing paid menstrual leave for women experiencing pain, which ranges from 3 to 5 days per month. In Japan, this law has been in effect since 1947, with fines imposed on companies that refuse to comply.

“She decides”

Zahraa Al-Dairani, a feminist activist, is associated with the She Decides initiative, which was founded in Lebanon in 2019. It offers training sessions and discussions on sexual and reproductive health for women in the Bekaa region. Al-Dairani explained, “The initiative is linked to the global movement spurred by President Trump’s gag rules, which prohibited funding for abortion-supporting associations. The strategy was previously based on supporting youth movements across the world, and it attempted to establish this in Lebanon too.”

Al-Dairani condemns the lack of sanitary products in public places in Lebanon, sharing that she has “never encountered sanitary pads, neither in cafe bathrooms nor in restaurants.” Sometimes, she finds them “in the bathrooms of human rights organizations.”

Menstrual justice is realized when issues of menstrual, sexual, and reproductive health are recognized as ongoing societal matters with their own significance.

According to Al-Dairani, the narrative around menstruation will change when menstrual health products become free; it will no longer be regarded as “shameful” but rather, “a natural biological process that requires support and care.” She continues, “This is especially important in the face of difficult economic conditions and in countries experiencing financial crises, where condescending views toward women are prevalent. Once menstrual health products become free or if women are supported during menstruation, it will become clear that women are supported psychologically and by the state. Menstruation is not an individual matter but a collective one controlled by systems and laws, so adjustments must be made to suit the needs of women as integral parts of society.”

Al-Dairani believes that “in the context of consumerist and capitalist systems, it is our duty to advocate for the free distribution of sanitary pads which constitute an additional burden on women beyond the already imposed responsibilities. Menstrual justice is achieved through securing healthcare, water, and providing a safe environment for women where they feel comfortable, something that cannot be achieved in a system lacking these services. Menstrual justice is realized when issues of menstrual, sexual, and reproductive health are recognized as ongoing societal matters with their own significance.”

Baskets for menstrual products

In the restroom of Meili, a library and café for women in Baalbek, certain organizations, which preferred not to disclose their names, placed baskets for menstrual products and personal hygiene.

While some consider menstruation a personal matter shrouded in myth and stigma, certain organizations consider it primarily a collective responsibility and therefore provide free sanitary pads in some establishments, including cafes, restaurants, and public places. Menstrual health is recognized as a physical and sexual need that must be addressed– one that should not impose additional financial burden on women.

The statement from these organizations, as posted in the female restroom at Meili, emphasizes the need to enact laws granting women security during their menstrual cycles. Feminine hygiene and reproductive health is an issue concerning the citizens of all countries, their productivity at work or in school, and most importantly, their personal and psychological well-being.

The organizations championing menstrual justice believe that until it is achieved, women must stand in solidarity with one another and develop collaborative support networks. Placing solidarity baskets in bathrooms in various locations is one such measure. Public spaces can be reconstructed from a feminist standpoint, prioritizing women's needs, and achieving spatial justice.

Our Journey organization

The feminist organization Our Journey was founded to combat menstrual poverty and break taboos associated with menstruation.

In our conversation with Samar Al-Samra, program coordinator at Our Journey, she explains the origin of Our Journey which was founded in 2021 by activists Vanessa Zammour, Amanda Cozy, Assil Khalifa, and Evie Lewelyn. She tells Raseef22, “After the economic crisis and the devastating Beirut explosion, the organization noticed that aid to victims did not consider the menstrual cycle. Additionally, there was a need to document women's experiences during this time and create conversations that normalize periods and challenge associated societal taboos. Menstruation is not an individual, personal, or private event, rather, it is a collective experience shared by the majority of women despite their differences.”

The association also found that sexual education is limited among girls and women, according to Al-Samra, “there is no sexual education in the academic curricula; most women do not know what happens to their bodies during their menstrual period, or of the physical changes during this phase. Most of the concepts they are familiar with stem from societal perspectives dominated by custom and tradition.”

Our Journey recently received a grant from the Hivos organization under the title Welead, and it has begun implementing activities such as discussions to share experiences among different groups, including minority women, transgender women, women with special needs, and foreign workers.

The Welead project also provides reusable menstrual products, which are expensive in Lebanon. Our Journey also works with student volunteers from the American University of Beirut to place menstrual products in university bathrooms.

Al-Samar shares, “We are currently working on several future projects, including an art exhibition that will shed light on the experiences of menstruation. This is an opportunity for any interested artist to participate.”

"No comfort during menstruation"

“I am always uncomfortable during my period, which usually lasts 7 days. Each month, I am forced to pack pads and menstrual supplies in my bag for work, sometimes 10 days before its expected arrival because my workplace does not provide these supplies,” explains Yasmin, a journalist working at a Lebanese media company.

Yasmin opens up to Raseef22 about the tensions she experiences each time, recalling, “I usually track my cycle with a mobile app. However, last July, on a visit to the restroom at work, I was surprised to find that I had gotten my period. Panic quickly took over because I was wearing pink pants. I searched my bag for pads but couldn't find any. I asked my colleagues one by one, and unfortunately, I didn't find any pads. Since it's difficult for me to go to the store without putting anything to absorb the blood, I decided to use a large quantity of paper tissues, hoping they would suffice until I reached the store – this trip took about 10 minutes. It was the hardest 10 minutes of my life.”

Yasmin continues, “After making it back to work, I approached my colleagues and together, we looked for solutions. We decided to pool together a small fund, from each of our monthly incomes, to purchase menstrual supplies such as pads, medications, and tissues. We placed them in the women's restroom at our office. This decision changed a lot for us.”

The reality of "menstrual poverty"

In 2021, amid an economic crisis in Lebanon, 76 girls and women faced difficulty accessing menstrual supplies, according to a study conducted by Femme to Femme in collaboration with Plan International, on the “reality of menstrual poverty.”

The situation has not improved much since then, considering the decline in purchasing power, and the deteriorating economic situation. Even securing basic menstrual necessities remains a luxury in the government's plans, despite individual, NGO and feminist efforts.

Rana Haydar, who works for a media company in Lebanon, explains her monthly struggle. She is required to work from the office for more than two days a week, and given that “Menstruation sometimes comes unexpectedly, the only solution is to buy a new box of sanitary napkins, but pharmacies and stores are not available everywhere.”

Haydar tells Raseef22, “We are not asking for pads to be free because this is difficult to achieve in a country like Lebanon. However, we want girls to pay a symbolic amount to get these supplies whenever they want without the need to request them each time.”

She notes that many women “have become afraid” of getting their periods “because of the embarrassment” and associated complications.

Haydar tells us of one specific incident, in which she got her period unexpectedly while at a shopping center in Beirut. She tried asking a friend for help, but the friend had just finished her period, so she was forced to find pads herself despite the severe pain she was in. “How much easier would life be if dealing with pads was like dealing with any other essential human need?” She concludes, wondering, “When will we apply the idea of free sanitary pads like in Ireland?”

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