Posted by Nicole Moran on August 12, 2020 at 2:42 pm
August 12th marks International Youth Day, a day where we celebrate and embrace the amazing determination, strength and power of young people in making real and impacting change in their communities and at national and international levels. Within Share-Net, we have asked our young team members to reflect on their experiences with SRHR within their country context and asked how it has contributed to the work that they are doing now.
Talking openly about menstruation
Menstruation is a taboo in Bangladesh. From my childhood I was taught that it is a matter of shame, and that I was not supposed to talk about periods in front of boys. Thus, conversations about periods always took place in whispers. When I started to bleed in the middle of work, or in the middle of classes, I would secretly and silently put my pad inside my pocket and run to the toilet, as if I was carrying an illegal item. It has been like this before I began working at RedOrange where I made friends with people who were vocal about sexual and reproductive health and rights.
It amazed me how people at my workplace spoke openly about their periods in front of colleagues, juniors and seniors, regardless of what gender they belonged to. My colleagues carried sanitary pads to the bathroom the same way they would carry soap or toilet paper. Gradually, I too became comfortable speaking about menstruation openly with no shame, and I do it within my family, and with people who I know with the aim of normalising conversations on periods.
The most important people who helped me look at menstruation normally were my young colleagues. They were the ones who established an environment at my workplace where employees felt comfortable talking about menstruation with each other. The workplace being just the beginning, together with an individual responsibility, we can move the conversation in our households and friend circles to make sure we have a future where everyone can speak about menstruation with no shame.
Engaging with SRHR Movements
Ireland has a long withstanding history of silence and shame around sexual and reproductive health and rights. This can be attributed to Ireland’s identity as an astute Catholic country in which church and state are shockingly intertwined (to the extent that under Article 41.2 of Ireland’s existing constitution it states that “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.. yikes). As you can imagine, having such a reductionist and simplified image of women well ingrained into the Irish psyche has resulted in a lot of barriers when it comes to breaking the constraints of Catholic guilt and sexuality.
As a young person in Ireland, finding accurate information about sexual health, pleasure and even menstrual health was a challenge. For most of us, knowledge about sexual and reproductive health arrives through the school system which unfortunately boils down to a cisgender-heterosexual teaching of “sex is something that happens between a man and a woman and the only absolute way to avoid pregnancy is abstinence”. This stark view undoubtedly instilled horror and a petrifying fear in all of my peers about having any sexual encounters.
It was incredibly frustrating trying to navigate the world of relationships, sexual health and basic bodily functions by myself. However, more frustrating than that was living in a country where the existing laws dictated who could legally marry and who had basic bodily autonomy. In 2015, I had just turned 18 and used my first ever vote to vote in favour of the Marriage Equality referendum which saw Ireland’s highest ever voter turnout percentage. In 2018, when I was 21, I voted again for another landslide victory which was for the legalisation of abortion care. This referendum saw an even higher turnout percentage of voters.
Considering Ireland’s attitude of shame around sexual and reproductive health, the above results were historical in every capacity. So, what did the two campaigns have in common that undoubtedly contributed to such success? The answer: the unshakable determination and leadership of young people. Both campaigns included a huge number of dedicated young people who were active both at a local and a national level and who achieved real, impacting change.
Being involved in campaigning for the abortion referendum and fully understanding the level of injustice young Irish people were experiencing due to an archaic, conservative mindset catapulted me into the world of gender equality and SRHR to which I am now actively dedicated to and channel through my work at Share-Net Netherlands.
My personal SRHR story
I consider myself lucky having grown up in a progressive Austrian family, with comparatively open communication about sexuality and gender roles. My mum enjoys telling the story of her four-year-old daughter being able to explain the use of tampons to astonished neighbours in our small conservative village called Feldkirch (German for church in the field and pictures speak value). Some years later, my first period arrived and naturally the first appointment at a gynecologist was made. Once my gynecologist found out I had a boyfriend, I immediately got a prescription for the contraceptive pill. Who menstruated + was having sex = taking the pill. Further, I did not miss a single one of the mandatory yearly checks – to the very surprise of my current huisarts in the Netherlands who considers these routine checks unnecessary before the 30th birthday of a young person.
Third year of high school, my religion teacher invited Herby to facilitate some after-school sessions with my class. Herby was a 40-something, cisgender male, self-appointed sexuality expert aiming at educating a group of giggling 13-year olds about safe sex. First exercise: an ice-breaker. Herby symbolically divided the room into two halves using a red thread. Then we were asked to position ourselves on either side of the room indicating our response to his questions by either yes or no. Have you ever kissed? Have you ever touched another gender’s genitalia? Have you ever had sex? The group was still giggling, this confrontation felt uncomfortable.
Consequently, Feldkirch boiled with indignation and a number of classmates had to drop out from the sessions after their parents signed a petition against Herby claiming he was promoting peer pressure to have sex. The rest including myself moved on, smelling at strawberry-taste condoms and watching a TV series addressing consent. In hindsight, Herby clearly did not provide a safe space for everyone to have these conversations, neither did he address sexual orientations or non-cis identities (thanks to our religion teacher, I guess), but we proudly shared our new knowledge with the classmates that were forced to remain out of the loop.
Over the following years, I increasingly acknowledged the power and privilege of always having felt the available resources provided by family, friends and strangers to better understand my feelings, body and relationships. Here I am in my role at Share-Net Netherlands today, aspiring to jointly work towards making many more young people feel that way.