Young girls learning about how to manage their menstrual cycles with confidence. (Supplied: Central Australian Youth Link Up Service)
Many women and girls would be familiar with their monthly cycle, but for many Indigenous girls living remotely in outback Australia the conversation is complex.
- Indigenous girls and women face extra challenges during menstruation, including access to affordable products and functioning bathrooms
- Central Australian Youth Link Up Service provides a tailor-made menstrual hygiene guide to help young women navigate their menstrual cycle
- One academic says more education is needed to reduce the taboo of menstruation in outback Australia
Compounded by overcrowding, access to affordable sanitary products and functioning bathrooms can make dealing with menstruation challenging.
Wendy Anders, an Arrente woman from Central Australia, said talking about menstruation was a taboo topic.
“It’s a very shame thing in Aboriginal communities,” she said.
“No-one talks about it and it just gets hidden … until we actually start saying ‘it’s time to raise this and deal with it, and not be embarrassed, not be ashamed of it’.
“Every woman in the world goes through it, and we’ve all got that commonality around health hygiene and particularly menstrual hygiene.”
Ms Anders, a senior project officer at the National Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Women’s Alliance in Victoria, said part of the problem was that Aboriginal women did not want to talk about personal issues.
“Going into a shop and buying [menstrual products] you have hesitation if you’re not very comfortable in yourself and you haven’t been raised to feel comfortable about your personal hygiene, your health, yourself and identity,” Ms Anders said.
“I think that comes back to that systematic racist background that we have had since colonisation.
“It’s through everything we do.”
Empowering young women
Jude Pritchard of the Central Australian Menstrual Hygiene Management Project holds workshops with women in Central Australia and said women were “really hungry for this knowledge”.
“They’re dealing in a situation where there’s a lack of access to resources, to bathrooms, and they’d like the support to help tell this story,” she said.
Jude Pritchard is working to educate girls about what to expect in menstruation. (ABC Alice Springs: Emma Haskin)
Ms Pritchard starts workshops with a simple, yet effective, bracelet-making exercise to introduce the concept of a regular cycle.
“We make a bracelet that consists of 28 beads. The main condition of that bracelet is that five beads are of the same colour representing the average woman’s [menstruation] cycle,” she said.
“It can be remembered as a timeframe because each bead is one day.”
The bracelet also lends itself to the idea of a predictable and regular cycle, which can help girls and women plan ahead.
One strategy to combat availability and affordability to sanitary items is for businesses, schools, and other institutions to provide free pads and tampons.
“Where the sticker is displayed, it’s a girl-friendly site with free products for women,” Ms Pritchard said.
These stickers mean girls and women can access free menstrual hygiene products. (ABC Alice Springs: Emma Haskin)
Access to amenities difficult
Despite the positive response to the Menstrual Hygiene Management project, young women cannot rely on access to sanitary items or clean and functioning bathrooms.
Ms Pritchard said overcrowding also made the security of menstrual products difficult for younger women and girls.
“Twenty people there in a two-bedroom house and one bathroom? There’s no hope,” she said.
Central Australian Youth Link Up Service’s growing up poster shows what happens during menstruation. (Supplied: Central Australian Youth Link Up Service)
Ms Pritchard said younger women would not purchase sanitary items from the community store if men were serving at the counter.
“The male shop staff reported that they didn’t sell any menstrual products. And it was like ‘Well, that might not be a coincidence’,” she said.
“Some shops have paper bags available so ladies can slip their items into paper bags to take them out.
“But generally, access and even the affordability is a big one for those kind of products.
“This is very much women’s business.”
In some cases girls were substituting other items when they were menstruating.
“Clothing, as my grandmothers did. I think clothing is an item that can always be used. And toilet paper, I think, is also used. But of course, it has an expense,” Ms Pritchard said.
“I do know bathrooms are failing and a lot of communities there have no bins. There might not be regular pickups from bins that are outside the house.
“Dogs can get into them. It’s just a really messy area and it’s not one that gives people a lot of happiness.”
The Central Australian Youth Link Up Service provides sanitary items and underpants for girls to use. (ABC Alice Springs: Emma Haskin)
The project also focuses on working with schools in the area.
“Providing girl-friendly bathrooms — what do they look like? How much privacy do girls need?” Ms Pritchard said.
“They don’t want to be asking a male teacher for the key to the cupboard to get some products out.
“They need to have [sanitary items] available in their own bathroom and if they take it home because they need it, that is fine.”
Navigating the cycle
The 28-beaded bracelet is a simple yet effective way to engage with young women about how long their menstrual cycle might be. (Supplied: Central Australian Youth Link Up Service)
At Larapinta Valley town camp, Roxanne Oliver fields questions from girls in the workshops asking how to use pads and other products.
“I explain it to them and show them how to use them. Some of the girls were shy and some weren’t,” she said.
“They were laughing and happy. They had good fun.
“Young aunties were supporting the young girls telling them how to use the sanitary items.”
Ms Oliver said she also encouraged the girls to explain how they might feel during menstruation.
“Sometimes they don’t want to do anything because they might feel weak and get stomach pain from their period when it starts,” she said.
Roxanne Oliver, facilitator of the Menstrual Hygiene Program in Central Australia, helps to answer questions girls have. (Supplied: Central Australian Youth Link Up Service)
Access to basic human rights
University of Queensland in the School of Public Health lecturer Nina Hall questioned whether we were doing enough to protect Indigenous women’s human rights in Australia when it came to menstrual health hygiene.
Dr Hall said there were a number of things that were universally agreed to be a basic human right, including the right to human dignity and the right to an education.
“If you can’t manage your menstruation through having the right products, knowing what’s happening to your body, having waste facilities, then you actually can’t access your education or there are limits,” she said.
“Around the world there is research around girls missing school every month due to heavy days of their period and the inability to manage it because they don’t have the facilities or the products.”
Through Dr Hall’s research in remote Indigenous communities across Queensland she found that availability, cost, and education were all inhibiting factors for young Aboriginal women.
“We could always do a lot more and in very simple ways,” she said.
“In Kenya, Ghana and Uganda, the public school health budget included deliveries of pads to public schools every three months.
“So the products are there if the girls need to access them.”
Also providing appropriate and private waste facilities to dispose of soiled sanitary items was integrated into the schools.
Nina Hall with school girls in Western Cape York, discussing how to manage menstruation and life with dignity everyday. (Supplied: Nina Hall)
“We could do better with how puberty education is delivered in schools as it is in the curriculum,” Dr Hall said.
“But the way it’s delivered is very diverse as is everything in our education system.”
Dr Hall drew parallels from how the mental health discussion had developed over the years.
“Fifteen years ago, we didn’t really have the language to talk about mental health in society, which now that we do it has become much more normalised.
“In a way menstrual hygiene is taking a similar path.
“The more we can talk about it, and have that taboo softened or reduced or even removed, the more we can actually address it and and resolve the barriers that exist for many girls and women.”
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