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Tampons Are a Justice Issue

While reporting in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the 'period problem' and why solutions are tough to come by.
Tampons Are a Justice Issue
Image: Shutterstock / Yulia Grigoryeva

Tampons are nearly ubiquitous in the West and rarely seen elsewhere. I realized this vividly when I traveled to Niger several years ago. I broke the cardinal rule of women of childbearing age and forgot to take tampons, or anything, really, to deal with my time of the month. It was an off week and I was confident enough in my body to know my period wouldn’t come early.

I was wrong.

I realized this on day 7 or so of my 10-day trip. I scrambled to find something, only to be told by a humanitarian worker traveling with me that even if I were to find a drugstore somewhere—quite rare in that country—I wouldn’t find a tampon. They just didn’t exist there.

I called on our universal bond as women to solve my immediate problem, but I remain fascinated by the idea that there are places where tampons just don’t exist. After visiting Niger and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and researching water and sanitation problems and practices for World Vision, I now understand why. I also understand better that those cigar-shaped rolls of absorbent material that we Western women try so hard to hide are symbols of freedom and privilege. Invisible or not, tampons point to a way of viewing our bodies and ourselves that is shaped by our social context and technology.

In Uganda, Zambia, Niger, and other developing countries, very few women, if any, use tampons. There are multiple reasons for this. One is functional: In countries where running water is only found ...

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