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‘The English have landed’: France finally starts lifting menstrual taboo

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The French are world-leaders when it comes to coining euphemisms for women’s periods, including one derived from the Battle of Waterloo. Spurred on by a new generation of female activists, they are finally coming to terms with a natural and inevitable aspect of women’s lives – and looking for ways to improve their wellbeing.

 

If you think bees are dying by the millions because of pesticides and climate change, think again – women’s menstrual blood is to blame.

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At least that’s what Pliny the Elder wrote in his “Natural History” some 2,000 years ago, one in a long list of wild myths that have linked women’s periods to just about every calamity, from blighted crops to mayonnaise turned sour.

Pliny’s infamous assertion resurfaced this week in a 107-page report on how to lift “menstrual taboos”, co-authored by two members of France’s National Assembly. Informed by the work of feminist campaigners and advocacy groups, the report details 47 recommendations to ensure menstruation is better understood and is no longer “a cause of anguish and suffering” for women.

“Periods have long been a taboo subject because they were seen as dirty and impure,” says Laëtitia Romeiro Dias, a lawmaker from the ruling LREM party who co-authored the report with her colleague Bénédicte Taurine, of the opposition La France insoumise, a leftwing party.

“A refusal to talk openly about the subject has enabled all sorts of misconceptions to be passed on from one generation to another,” she adds. “This ignorance has to stop”

Call it menstrual blood, period

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According to a 2016 survey carried out in 190 different countries, the French make greater use of slang terms and euphemisms when referring to periods than any other people. They also have some of the most colourful expressions, such as “Les Anglais ont débarqué” (“The English have landed”), a reference to the British redcoats who fought off Napoleon’s army at the Battle of Waterloo.

Though often quaint and humorous, euphemisms also reflect a historic failure to speak openly about a natural and inevitable aspect of women’s lives. In France and elsewhere, this failure continues to affect the wellbeing of schoolgirls and women, breeding shame, illness and injustice.

In their report, Romeiro Dias and Taurine stress that “deconstructing the taboo” of periods necessarily involves changing the way it is approached at school, both when and how.

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French pupils are first taught about periods in secondary school, aged 13 or thereabouts. That’s too late, says Romeiro Dias.

“Girls are going through puberty earlier than ever before. It’s not uncommon for them to get their first period at 10, while still at primary school,” she explains. “If it happens to you and no-one has talked about it before, it’s scary. There’s blood, you don’t know why, and you think you’re sick.”

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The lawmaker also regrets the fact that menstruation is taught “in correlation with sexuality”.

“When you first get your period, you shouldn’t be hearing that you might get pregnant,” she argues. “The questions asked should be, ‘Does it hurt, is it serious, what hygienic and protective habits must we adopt?’”

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A failure to get the right message across can lead to serious risks for women’s health, the report notes, pointing to the threat of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a rare infection with life-threatening consequences.

In an interview with French daily Le Parisien last month, a 36-year old mother-of-three explained how an infection caused by her menstrual cup spread to her internal organs and ultimately resulted in her losing both her feet and parts of her fingers. The woman, a nurse, blamed the packaging of the menstrual cup, saying it did not make it clear when the cup should be removed before it could trigger TSS.

French health authorities have announced further research on the toxicity of certain substances found in tampons, pads and cups. Existing studies have determined that menstrual cups are safe and effective, though warning that they should not be used for extensive periods, just like tampons.

“The packaging for such products is often very detailed and scientific, and therefore unreadable,” Romeiro Dias says. “Instructions need to be a lot clearer given how important a public health issue this is.”

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‘Women keep quiet and use old newspapers’

Several of the lawmakers’ proposals focus on improving access to menstrual protection for women who live in poverty and are in a vulnerable situation, and who are reluctant to seek the help of charities.

Picking up on the report, two junior ministers announced on Wednesday that menstrual protection would be distributed freely, during a one-year trial, to women in need. Gender Equality Minister Marlène Schiappa and her colleague Christelle Dubos, who holds the health and solidarity portfolio, said the scheme would start with a budget of one million euros. It is expected to focus on schools, hospitals, shelters and prisons.

The ministers’ announcement was hailed as a victory by charities.

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“We’re talking about basic necessities here, which are still luxury items for many women,” says Nadège Passereau of ADSF, a women’s health charity and advocacy group that distributes sanitary kits to women in need.

“Such products are currently only available in homeless shelters, where women are often reluctant to ask for them,” Passereau adds. “One mustn’t forget all of this was taboo for a long time. It’s only recently that we’ve started to talk about sanitary pads. Women keep quiet and use old newspapers, which further undermines their dignity and threatens their health, exposing them to yeast infections, fibroids and, ultimately, sterility.”

Passereau, whose charity distributes 12,000 packets of sanitary pads each year, says growing awareness of the issue has helped better address women’s specific needs.

“We now know that sanitary pads must be included in the kits distributed at shelters – and not just razors, as used to be the case when people associated homelessness with males only,” she explains.

The private sector has also come on board, she notes, pointing to brands that help collect tampons and pads for donation. One local start-up, Marguerite et Cie, has placed solidarity at the very heart of its business model: for every item sold another is donated to ADSF – and its products are organic too.

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‘You don’t seriously think we’ll pay to stick chlorine in our pussies?’

Passereau credits a new generation of social-media-savvy campaigners with helping to bring about a radical change in attitudes to menstruation in recent years, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as period activism.

Tara Heuzé-Sarmini, the founder of Règles élémentaires, another charity that looks after women in menstrual poverty, says she first developed an awareness of the issue a few years ago while studying at a British university and witnessing collections of tampons, pads and other sanitary products – a practice she helped introduce back home with her charity, founded in 2015.

France was behind the curve at the time, but it soon caught up, spurred on by a high-profile row over the so-called “Tampon Tax”, which forced the government to lower the tax on tampons and bring it in line with other essential products.

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“Ever since then, there has been a huge mobilisation on social media,” says Heuzé-Sarmini, describing the topic as “highly Instagrammable”.

In one popular Instagram post that caused a stir last year, 20-year-old Paris student Irene posted a picture of herself without menstrual protection, bleeding on her leggings. Demanding free sanitary protection for all women, the post read: “We pay the price of oppression, the price of misogyny, the price of inequality; you don’t seriously think we’ll also pay to stick chlorine in our pussies while you continue to stigmatise and demonise our blood [?]”

Weeks later, a YouGov/HuffPost survey found that young adults in France were overwhelmingly in favour of free sanitation as well as paid leave from work for women who experience painful periods, something only a handful of countries currently allow.

Règles élémentaires says women spend on average between €8,000 and 23,000 on menstrual products in their lifetime – a financial burden that leaves an estimated 1.7 million women in France living in “menstrual poverty”, many of them cash-strapped students.

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In this respect, the government’s promise to experiment with free distributions marks an important first step, says Heuzé-Sarmini, though more needs to be done.

“It was our first priority, now we want three more measures,” she explains. “We want vouchers or pre-paid cards for women in need, so that they can make their own, intimate choices. We want health insurance to reimburse sanitary products, as is already the case for some students. And we want distributors in all public and private spaces, from schools to office buildings, to make sanitary products as readily available as condoms.”

Only then, she adds, when sanitation is available to all, in broad daylight, will menstruation finally cease to be a taboo subject.

Photo: © Jacques Demarthon, AFP


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