Helping Hands or Cultural Imperialism?

Crunchy Chicken posted she sent a shipment of reusable menstrual pads to Goods for Girls so Kenyan girls can continue their educational needs while menstruating.

It’s a worthy cause. I think all people should have access to education. And it should to equal access. None of this “boys are more important to girls” crap and nothing should keep girls out of the classroom, not even when Aunt Flo comes for her monthly visit.

But it makes me wonder if sending African girls reusable menstrual pads are just another form of cultural imperialism.

There was an article I read a few months back about one tampon company, I think Tampax but don’t quote me on that, and how they’ve been donating their tampons to South African schools to keep girls in educational institutions as a way of showing corporate goodwill. While this may seem like a fab idea, the point of the article was to show corporate imperialism and how said tampon company is actually creating a market while simultaneously creating a disconnect between traditional ways menstruation has been handled and American ways of coping with the monthly bloody. That is, we catch our blood with bleached white cotton and throw it away and, of course, how menstrual blood is “dirty” and must be hidden away and something to be ashamed of. Case in point: Wolf grew up with a mother and three sisters. He not once saw a pad or tampon in the trash, in the cabinet, nor any blood in the toilet. As far as he knew, none of the women in his house bled.

Women have been menstruating since the dawn of time so I’m sure African women have a pretty good idea on how to handle their moon times. I just can’t imagine African women have been walking around for a centuries without having a clue how to catch their blood, leaving a trail behind them every month. That just doesn’t seem feasible to me. Admittedly I have no idea how they cope with menstruation but I’m sure they do.

So here we are, well intentioned Statians and Americans, sending our products to African nations, specifically Kenya, to “help” girls manage their periods and keep them in school. But isn’t that part of the problem and not the solution? Aren’t we doing the same thing the tampon company is doing, just with earth friendly products? Here we are saying “We know how to deal with our periods, you don’t, so follow in our footsteps. We’ll give you free pads because we’re a rich nation and we want to help you, you poor little African nation.”

Wouldn’t it be better for us to find out what traditional menstrual management African women have used and open up supply lines so they can be independent and self-sustaining instead of sending our product for them to become dependent on?

It just seems to me our intentions are good but it’s really about making ourselves feel better and not actually overcoming the problem: girls are undereducated. They don’t have equal access to the institutions which create self-empowerment. I don’t mean to criticize the good work Crunchy is doing, nor those who have assisted her, I just think there’s better ways for us to “help” than to create dependency on a foreign product.

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8 Responses to Helping Hands or Cultural Imperialism?

  1. I have read about this and had the same thoughts. I think that the problem is that the girls get behind in school because of their periods. It might be better to find a way for them to study at home during thier moon times. However, this practice wouldl isolate them just because they are female so I don’t know if it would be much of an improvement.

  2. Howling Hill says:

    Seventh sister: How did you stumbled across Tangled Webs?

    I don’t think keeping Kenyan girls at home is the solution either. What I was thinking was more along the lines of what are the traditional ways of blood gathering? Why have those traditions gone by the wayside. How do we assist in resurrecting them?

    They way I see it is like this: give a girl a fish and she’ll eat for a day. Teach a girl to fish and she’ll eat for life. I don’t want to see African girls become dependent on foreign products no matter how green those products are and how well intentioned the givers (ie, the US) are. Opening up resources, supply lines, etc, that is something we may be able to do to watch African females become independent and autonomous.

  3. Pingback: Allie’s Answers » Blog Archive » What’s Going On

  4. Howling Hill says:

    Noelle: I went from wearing tampons exclusively to reusable pads and it wasn’t an easy switch.

    First I started using a reusable tampon — a sponge — before I went to reusable pads. Now that I’ve been using them for about 8 years now, I won’t go back. But I understand reusables aren’t for everyone.

    Have you considered a sea sponge? If that’s not feasible, have you considered non-bleached tampons? Ones made with organic cotton or something along that lines? How about the Diva Cup?

    All in all, if the majority of women moved to reusables there’d be a whole lot of earth saving going on. And for those, such as yourself, who can’t bring themselves to do it, you can “make up” for it in other ways which are meaningful to you.

  5. Noelle says:

    I had a brief foray with reusable pads, and it was terrible. Horrible. I hated it. I know that bleached tampons are not great environmentally, but man, they make my life better. I consider it a luxury that I can have in return for my reusable coffee cup and shopping bags and what not. In the grand scheme of things, the wast of tampons is not that great, and there is an argument to be made that by not letting disadvantaged girls have the top of the line technology, we’re further holding them back. I mean, they’ve also been practicing female circumcision forever, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the better way.

    But it is a bit disturbing if they’re only exposed to one product sold by one company. Maybe I can get them some OB. That’s my preferred brand, and a lot less impactful than tampons with applicators.

  6. erikka says:

    the approach of learning how the African women in question handle their monthly bleeding would work on a small scale level, one-to-one, person to person. whereas now, America has already been involved in creating and trying to fix many issues in Africa that the issues are seen on a MASS scale, and approached as a MASS problem with an American solution and way of thinking. it’s hard to be culturally relativistic when you see a MASS of people suffering, being denied rights, etc…
    in this way, I see why a “quick fix” or something as easy as handing out tampons would be a Government’s response to a MASS issue.

    as 7th sister mentioned, the way of dealing with this in their tribal way may include isolation. maybe this was a way to over come that isolation. So yes, it does change their cultural way of dealing with monthly bleeding, but is that positive or negative if it keeps the girl connected to her people and education? who decides what she should do – shouldn’t it be the girl and her parents?

    have you spoken to the founder, to question where this idea was born? perhaps she was in Africa, working with these women and this came out of a collective group thought…i’m going to email her and ask myself. who knows. but i’d say let’s be careful before we go labeling every act of American outreach Imperialism. Yeah, maybe Tampax is the only one donating goods, but do you know WHY they are? Have they not allowed other companies to do so? Could it be as simple as maybe the organic, smaller places can’t AFFORD to give away products as much as a corporation can? Does that make it wrong or right than that Tampax can?

    more flip sides to think of…

  7. Here is a very well written article by Masimba Biriwasha regarding the issue:

    In Africa, Menstruation Can Be a Curse

    In the future, Goods 4 Girls will be working with locals to sew their own pads with donated material. But, the issue is very complex and completely dependent on the area, culture and country. Many areas are devasted by war, disease and poverty and women’s health issues, unfortunately, rank low on the list.

  8. Howling Hill says:

    Erikka: I think part of the problem is we’re looking for a “one size fits all” solution. As Crunchy said above, it’s a complex problem with lots of different solutions, none of which will be fast or easy.

    But I don’t think importing a product to Africa is the answer. After all, doesn’t that defeat our “local solutions for local problems” premise? Why is it our goal to be localvores for ourselves but we’re still supporting the long distance importing/exporting of our products to foreign nations? On the flip side, why aren’t we promoting local solutions for local problems for Kenyan girls and women, instead of flooding their economy with foreign products? It just seems we’re not practicing what we’re preaching.

    Isolation certainly isn’t the solution, that we all agree on. I commend Crunchy and others for putting forth a solution, but I think we need some more input from the local communities Good 4 Girls is serving. Americans can’t solve the world’s problems and I think it’s time we stopped trying to.

    Crunchy: I think it’s awesome the work you’re doing and I don’t want to discourage it. I just wanted to add a voice from another viewpoint. I’m one who believes we all capable of solving our own problems, we just don’t always have the resources to do so. Assisting in problem solving in one thing, but doing the problem solving for another is something completely different, especially when it requires one group of people to become dependent on another’s generosity.

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