Have you heard about the Ishango bone? The ancient baboon bone covered in incisions was discovered in the 1960’s on the shore of a lake in the current Democratic Republic of the Congo. It has been dated to somewhere between 20,000 B.C. and 25,000 B.C. Similar bones have been found in other locations in Africa and in Europe, with the oldest known bone with similar incisions dating to 37,000 B.C.
The markings, done in intervals of 28 or 29, were “assumed” to be agricultural calendars or even calendars tracking the phases of the moon.
Claudia Zaslavsky, author, educator and ethnomathematician pointed out in the early 1990s that the likely keepers of those early calendars were in fact, women. “Who,” she said, “but a woman keeping track of her cycles would need a lunar calendar?”
I wrote recently about “Invisible Women” and data bias, including in the world of health care. For example, when sildenafil citrate was tested in male patients as a heart medication, it’s um, well-known side effects for men were discovered and Viagra was born. However, it was also tested in women as a possible pain reliever of moderate to severe menstrual cramps and was found to offer significant and up to total relief, something women with severe cramping rarely experience. The authors of the double-blind randomized controlled trial note that they lost their funding and as far as I can tell, no further studies have been done.
Which brings me to a topic we should all be comfortable discussing: menstruation. Half of the planet experiences it. Women who don’t menstruate don’t get pregnant, so we can also say that the entire population of the earth is here because someone was menstruating, then ovulating, then conceiving, then birthing.
It is normal. It is not something to be embarrassed about or hide. Shunning women on their periods can lead to death, whether it’s the recent suicide of a teenager in Africa shamed because she leaked onto her clothing, or dying in menstrual huts in Nepal.
In detention camps at our border, young women who are on their periods describe being given one pad a day and not being allowed to shower or change their soiled clothes.
And yet, somehow, menstrual products are not considered medically necessary. You know. Like Viagra and Rogaine. You can use your Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) or even Medicaid to pay for those — but not to purchase tampons or pads.
In Utah, those menstrual supplies are taxed — unlike prescription drugs, birth control, or say, tickets to sporting events or vending machine candy.
Recognizing that one cannot always “plan” for when periods might start, and that a whopping two-thirds of low-income women can’t afford supplies — some facilities and organizations have begun providing free supplies. At the University of Utah, they are free for the asking. At some Utah high schools, baskets of supplies are left on bathroom counters. Supplies are now available free of charge at a number of Salt Lake City-run facilities.
However, much remains to be done. Utah state Rep. Sue Duckworth has been working for years to level the playing field and eliminate taxes on those essential supplies. It’s not as if those supplies are optional for women of child-bearing age, but she has found little traction at the legislature.
This Wednesday, interim day, the popular nonprofit “Days for Girls” is joining with like-minded allies and holding an educational event and press conference in the Utah Capitol Rotunda at noon. The public is invited to attend — and wear red.
Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.