“Menstrual poverty brings a nuanced understanding of what poverty and control mean, and what forms gender-based discrimination can take.”
What are you raising awareness for in this campaign?
My work circulates around menstrual poverty and abortion rights & reproductive justice in The Netherlands and Slovakia. Both causes are strongly body related – and are about body autonomy, dignity, health and control over one’s life.
What has inspired you to become passionate about these issues?
In March 2020 I got stuck in a first strict quarantine in my home country. It was the beginning of a pandemic outbreak, everyone was scared. At the same time, Slovakia took some discriminatory measures against Roma people – by locking them in their villages, not allowing them to leave, bringing food and water just once a week. I knew that many people do not have access to clean water in their home and when menstruating, access to their school or work is essential for their hygiene. This was suddenly not possible. Here I was locked in an empty apartment, alone but safe, and with access to menstrual products and clean water. I realized that this was not the case for many people at that moment. I got in contact with Linda, who’s been spreading awareness on sustainable periods through her organization Mesačnica, and we quickly became friends. This resulted in our first fundraiser that year and we raised around 500 euros. Unfortunately, we had no reach to any organizations helping Roma people at that moment, but we raised enough money to buy menstrual products for people experiencing homelessness in our hometown, Bratislava.
Later that year I joined Neighborhood Feminists in Amsterdam as a volunteer and after two years I became a freelance project assistant.
I’ve worked with Linda for three years, now as a part of Intymyta, a relationship and sex-ed organization. Last year we raised over 7000 euros, which has helped many people across Slovakia, covering their menstrual product need for a full year. This year together with Spolka we are implementing systematic support through our own designed and manufactured Menstruation Cabinets, which are expected to cover at least 15 locations with people in need this year. We are also mapping menstrual poverty in different places around Slovakia, with focus on excluded communities, and are generously supported by dm – drogerie markt for covering the products for the coming year. Additionally, have created a manual on how to build and install your own Menstruation Cabinet, which will be introduced to municipalities and various organizations and institutes across Slovakia in the coming year.
Why is the work you do important to you personally?
I believe no one should be discriminated against or oppressed based on their body, gender, sexuality, place of origin – simply put – anything they are unable to change and is predetermined by their birth. While this applies to many kinds of oppressions, menstrual poverty brings a nuanced understanding of what poverty and control mean and what forms gender-based discrimination can take.
My focus on abortion rights and reproductive justice simply comes from the constant threat Slovakia and surrounding countries are facing. Unfortunately, we see an enormous shift in the approach towards abortion. Many politicians and governments attempt to limit this access. Slovakia is facing this kind of attempts every 6 months now. This is a tiring and a never-ending fight for all of us – activists, organizations, protesters, abortion providers. Here passion comes through the anger and frustration – and not understanding why someone wants to limit our access to abortion and contraceptives in a country that has no sex ed in schools, no insurance covered contraceptives, has illegal medical abortion, and overall, a very difficult and expensive access to any abortion and reproductive care now. This is ridiculous. Given the example of Poland – and how The Netherlands has become the main destination to offer this type of health care – put bluntly, I am ready to support Slovaks this way, if needed.
What do you think is the biggest challenge in the fight against menstrual poverty right now?
Menstruation is still very much stigmatized. Menstrual poverty? Many have no idea what that means and what it looks like – people rarely understand that menstrual poverty is not “just” people without access to clean water or bathrooms – it’s students, single parents, unemployed people, people working multiple jobs. Menstrual poverty affects a wide range of people, and in a broad age range – and is many times an added layer to a general poverty, hitting from the most marginalized ones to those you would have never guessed. Menstrual poverty is silent, full of shame and almost impossible to tackle on one’s own. Plus, we need to note that it’s not “only” women that menstruate, but large groups of people who do not identify as women, and who are even more prone to being affected by poverty or other sorts/kinds of discrimination.
And within abortion rights and reproductive justice?
In their case we are facing very difficult times – it is a morally, politically and emotionally charged topic. Somehow many people believe they have the right to control other peoples’ bodies – and they continue doing so. In this case menstrual poverty isn’t much different – it’s about uteruses and people who carry them versus people who want to control them. Both cases need endless explanations, breaking of stigma, opening those topics daily.
What is one myth or misconception that you want to dispel?
That menstrual poverty is something one can just solve by “saving money”. They do not understand it’s about access, information, resources. In the latest study on menstrual poverty in the UK they found out that if a person decides what not to buy to save for the menstrual products, it’s usually fruits or vegetables they skip. Imagine the impact this has on one’s life if majority of it they are experiencing menstrual poverty. Imagine the impact this has if a person cannot go to work or school and must stay home – if they have any. We are talking about long-term life effects menstrual poverty has on a person. Many misconceptions about menstrual poverty come from very little education on the menstruation itself. Many misconceptions about abortion come from the ideas created by people who are opposing them, not by science or reality. We are working hard to change this.
What do you hope to achieve with your work?
In the short term, to be able to continue doing the work – providing people with products, spreading awareness and information. In the long term – us all being out of work, ha! So menstrual products are free, and the abortion is accessible and safe for everyone who needs it!
What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned on your journey so far?
Listening is more important than speaking. Every time I get the feeling I know it all, I need to realize I actually know very little. Doing this kind of work is not about competition, and the hierarchy within our own built systems can be very damaging. And don’t get fooled by the performative activism, more work is done in the background by the faces you never see.
Can you tell us where those experiencing menstrual poverty can best turn to for help?
If you have the access please check the websites of Periodic and Neighborhood Feminists for lists of places that provide free menstrual products. Also, Amsterdam City Rights App is something everyone with a phone should have.
If you’re in need of an abortion, Amsterdam Abortion Network are doing a hell of great work and can help you through the whole process. Or you can get in touch with me!
What can people do to help your work, besides supporting the organizations you mentioned above?
It’s not hard – if your resources allow you, you can start simply by having enough products ready in your bag, or in your bathroom when your friends and family are visiting. Leave a few pads or tampons in the bars or restaurants you’re visiting. Keep an eye on the accessibility of products at your school/university or work and push on those in charge.
Open up the discussions on menstrual poverty as well as on abortion rights with your close ones.
Want to connect with Natália Blahova? Reach out @nataliablahova on Instagram.