By Meritt Buyer
This week, we are talking about one of my favorite topics in disability studies: ‘Intersectionality.’ It is nice big liberal arts word that has concrete applications to the work of Building a Caring Community. Intersectionality describes the concept of overlapping and interconnected identities. The idea is that ability, race, gender, class, sexuality, etc., cannot be examined as individual issues, since each identity strongly influences the other. So for example, let’s start with ability, since that is our main focus here. A man experiences disability differently from a woman. A white woman in America experiences disability differently from a black woman in America, or a female immigrant in America. And all those women experience disability differently from an African woman. Are you with me?
Intersectionality describes the complexities of these identities and experiences. Women and girls with disabilities face the same discrimination and abuses as all women, but because of the stigma associated with their differing abilities, they face “double discrimination” and are more vulnerable to social isolation. So the girls and young women of BCC experience disability differently from their male counterparts. Therefore, we can’t really address disability issues without considering all these other identities.
Now, staying with the identities of gender and ability, let’s take a specific female experience: menstruation. Women in East Africa experience menstruation differently than women in North America. In Tanzania, sanitary pads are expensive and beyond the means of most women and girls. Instead, they resort to using old rags or newspapers. This unhygienic solution leads to increased infections and since these materials don’t provide much security, women are less able to participate in daily life when they are on their period. In fact, menstruation is the number one reason why girls in East Africa miss school.[i]
You can imagine then, that these issues are only amplified for women with disabilities. Given that disability and poverty are strongly correlated, women with disabilities, or caregivers of girls with disabilities, are that much more unlikely to be able to purchase sanitary pads. Since they face barriers participating in their community due to their gender and ability to begin with, women with disabilities are that much more vulnerable to the added challenges of menstruation.
BCC recently partnered with Femme International, a local menstruation education organization, in order to try to address some of these issues among our young women. And the result was fantastic.
Verynice Kimuru, Femme’s program manager, led a three-hour workshop for BCC’s young women, their mother’s and sister’s and BCC staff. She covered topics ranging from basic anatomy, UTI’s and yeast infections, to the monthly menstrual cycle. Verynice was so engaging and presented the information in a very accessible way for BCC’s young girls. Our staff asked great questions. Everyone was clearly so excited to be receiving the information.
Besides education, Femme also provides ‘Femme Kits’. The kits include reusable pads, a small towel, a bar of soap in a protective container, and a handheld mirror. All the girls were sent home with enough reusable pads to last 12 months and all the information about how to utilize them and how to keep themselves healthy. I loved watching the mama’s faces light up when they realized they would have these tools to help their girls! The girls themselves thought their new pretty pink bags were as good as Christmas gifts. They grinned as Verynice handed them out and proudly held them up for everyone to see.
This workshop warmed my feminist heart. All these women and girls coming together to talk about a topic that has affected them their whole adult lives, yet this may have been the first time they had the opportunity to get factual information about their bodies and discuss it openly. This may have been the first time someone gave them the tools to feel secure during their menstrual cycles. For the mothers, it gave them another way to help support their daughters and keep them safe.
In order to effectively talk about disability, we have to think beyond whether or not the children of BCC can walk or talk. We have to think about disability as a life experience; one that is different for everyone. Sometimes things like periods and disability go hand in hand.