Menstruation is often inconvenient, sometimes painful, but mostly manageable. This applies to an environment with good sanitary standards and a general comprehension of the requirements necessary to handle the situation with dignity.
However, stigmatization of menstruation compromises menstrual health and hygiene which can lead to exclusion and discrimination. In certain societies, this might mean the end of education, of earning and providing for an income, of fully and equally participating in everyday life.
Another aspect of menstruation is that unbeknownst to most menstruators, the use of sanitary products can have unwanted side effects, not only for the health of those using them but also for the environment.
For Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28 we wanted to know more about this topic and turned to Women Engage For a Common Future (WECF), a nonprofit network dedicated to a gender just and healthy planet for all. We spoke to Johanna Hausmann, consultant at WECF Germany, about the topic of toxic-free periods. You can download WECF’s brochure “Toxic free Periods” edited by WECF International based in the Netherlands here for free, and the German publication “Giftfreie Menstruation” is available here.
First of all, can you please tell us more about WECF?
Our international network consists of over 150 women’s and civil society organizations implementing projects in more than 50 countries. We believe that a sustainable future and environment needs holistic solutions reflecting the lives of people concerned. We believe in eco-feminist solutions based on our and our partners’ visions and needs. That is why we have an intersectional approach working on transformative gender equality and women’s human rights in interconnection with climate justice, sustainable energy & chemicals, less toxic waste, safe water & sanitation for all.
“We believe that a sustainable future and environment needs holistic solutions reflecting the lives of people concerned.”
One of your issues is “Menstruation Matters”. What is this about?
We stand up for the right to menstrual health and campaign for breaking the taboo on menstruation and reproductive health. Around the world girls, women and gender non-conforming people suffer from the stigma of menstruation through discrimination and often also the inability to afford sanitary products. However, sanitary products do not only affect people’s opportunities to participate in society but also have a huge impact on our health and our environment:
Many conventional menstrual health items have high levels of plastic and contain chemicals such as bisphenols or phthalates which can have negative health impacts. Labelling and information are missing. We are exposed to these substances without knowing. Along with this, disposable products create tons of waste which pollute the environment. We advocate for laws that prevent toxic substances in products, such as menstrual health products and single use plastic laws, and promote affordable and sustainable alternative period products. We campaign for the ban of taxes on period products, and, last but not least, we support partners with building menstrual health management proof toilets in schools.
“We stand up for the right to menstrual health and campaign for breaking the taboo on menstruation and reproductive health.”
Can you tell us more about the environmental aspects of sanitary products?
An average standard menstrual pad could contain up to 90 percent plastic. Plastic itself contains next to its fossil fuel-based basic material many chemical additives, often harmful to our health. These plastic particles end up in our bodies and in the waste dump, in the sea, in rivers and on beaches. This waste is polluting our beaches and oceans. But I don’t want to put the responsibility on the shoulder of women or people who menstruate; the gap of information, missing regulations to ban hazardous chemicals in products in general and insufficient toxic-free products on the market (world-wide) are reasons for the negative impact of those products.
A changing social and cultural attitude towards our periods could have a major impact on both our own health and on our mountains of waste. For example, greater openness would make wearing healthier options such as washable pads so much easier and more accessible.
“A changing social and cultural attitude towards our periods could have a major impact on both our own health and on our mountains of waste.”
Why is menstruation a political topic?
If there is one issue at the intersection of health, environment and the rights of women and gender non-conforming people – it is our menstruation. Here in Germany, in the Netherlands as well as in many other countries, both among the public and the policymakers, little attention is still paid to the environmental and health problems associated with our periods.
In addition to the existing social taboo on menstruation itself, the environmental and health aspects remain underexposed in the current social debate. As mentioned above, disposable menstrual products are not only harmful to the environment, as landfill waste and polluter of our sewers, beaches and oceans, but they may also be harmful to our health. In this respect, it is unacceptable that producers do not have to disclose the ingredients they use.
“Little attention is still paid to the environmental and health problems associated with our periods.”
What is the purpose of your brochure “Toxic free Periods”?
With the publication “Toxic free Periods” from our colleagues from WECF International and the German publication “Giftfreie Menstruation”, we do not only want to inform people who menstruate and their surrounding world but also encourage the use of more sustainable, safer and cheaper alternatives. We advocate for more openness, inform about facts and present practical knowledge about menstruation. Our particular focus lies on the unfair aspects of “common” menstrual products and habits and the resulting pollution of the environment.
Would you like to contribute to this discussion as well? Make it a topic in your own circles, talk about it at home. After all, openness is good for the women’s cause, the environment and our health.
Many thanks for your time and for the interview.