CHATTING TO NINA BOYDELL FROM 'THE MONTHLY'

Whilst living in Papua New Guinea, Nina Boydell came across a variety of different methods for dealing with menstruation, from using strips of old clothing, towel or toilet paper as pads, to sitting on the beach and bleeding into the water or onto the sand. She discovered that many women find it hard to achieve a basic level of human dignity when they have their period, with many girls staying home from school during their time of the month. 

The Monthly (pardon the pun...) joins other movements like Days for Girls to deliver sanitary kits to women who don't have access to feminine hygiene products. The group will meet once a week starting August 14th at Centre for Stories. 

Tell us a bit about your project The Monthly and how the idea came about.

From my perspective, The Monthly is an opportunity for women to gather and sew feminine hygiene kits which can be sent to women in parts of the world where women have difficulty accessing feminine hygiene products.  As a keen sewer, I am a strong believer in the power of women together to sew and share stories whilst doing something which is both enjoyable and beneficial to others.

What was it about the women in Papua New Guinea that made you want to take action?

Soon after I arrived in Bougainville in September 2013, I became aware that many women had difficulty accessing sanitary products which often meant they used unhygienic methods and often avoided going about their daily activities (eg. not attending school, not working). Women in Bougainville generally only use pads and for many, they are either too expensive or not available. Women also complain that the products on the market are uncomfortable. Often they use rags, disposable nappies or toilet paper. 

This seemed a terrible situation to me so when a friend in Australia sent me a link to a Days for Girls program which has been sending reusable sanitary pads to women and girls throughout the developing world, I introduced the idea to the women I was working with at the Bougainville Women’s Federation.

The first lot of kits were made with materials that my sister, who lives in Sydney, organized and which I took up to Bougainville in February 2014.

Given the attitudes surrounding menstruation in some of the places in PNG, has there been an element of education involved, for both men and women? If so, how do you approach this?

When the kits are distributed to women, we provide some awareness about the monthly cycle and how to care for the kits. Women are very shy about talking about menstruation and the taboos associated with menstruation and women’s fertility. After three years of working with the women, I can discuss these issues openly, but that is by and large with women who are well educated. Personally, I think it will be some time before we can start educating men about these issues. 

In PNG, there are still serious issues relating to violence against women and I believe this issue needs to be considered as part of the work that needs to be done to eliminate violence against women and girls. Slowly this is changing and there are programs which are working with men to address these issues but there is a long way to go.

 How have the women in PNG responded to the kits?

The women love the kits. It also saves them a lot of money. There is a huge demand for them.

 Have there been any particularly powerful stories from women in PNG who are now using the kits?

We haven’t distributed a lot of kits but one of the women, Florence, said the kit saved her life. It has saved her a lot of money and she uses it every month. She thinks it is a brilliant idea.

Friends of hers who have the kit also use it a lot. They all find it saves a lot of money.  They hope to be able to use them for several years. They are strong and do not fall apart with the washing. 

An older colleague of mine – who at the age of 50 – was fed up with managing her monthly cycle with limited resources, used the kit until menopause and shared it with her two daughters. Maybe this doesn’t sound very hygienic, but they all seemed happy with the arrangement! This woman is a great advocate for the kits and we are planning to send resources to her so that she can make kits to sell in her village, thereby providing her with an income and making the kits available to more women.

It can be difficult for us in Australia to imagine the shame associated with menstruation that so many women across the globe experience every month. Why do you think these negatives attitudes exist and how do you think we can change them? Is the key to talk about it?

I think even in Australia, amongst certain groups, there is shame associated with menstruation. I think there are probably many reasons why this happens and could be as basic as people finding blood messy to more complex issues relating to the position of women in society and the oppression that women have experienced over generations. In certain societies, taboos stop women from touching food during their period, they are banished to rooms away from the family, they're told that they are dirty. I think talking about it certainly helps and needs to happen to reduce the image of menstruation as being shameful. Often if you do bring it up in conversation, people – especially men – want to change the topic immediately. 

I’m not convinced that we need to be shouting about menstruation from the rooftops, but we need to acknowledge it, stop any taboos and shame relating to it, and, like all aspects of the human condition, understand and respect that each person’s experience is unique to them. 

Are there any other places, other than PNG, that you would like to see the kits distributed, and why?

I’m sure that there are many places where the kits would be well received.  I think it will be up to the group to consider where the kits are sent. One of the reasons that the project has been successful in Bougainville is because I have strong local connections and I think that is important.  

If we can't sew or are unable to attend The Monthly, are there any other ways we can get involved or help out?

There are other jobs to do which do not require sewing although I see the project being primarily about sewing and making kits. Other ways of being involved could be to help source materials or to help with fundraising to buy materials for the kits and to pay for transport which is expensive.