Marianne Lahaie Luna is a Canadian Venezuelan graduate student who is currently completing an internship at the department of Environmental Health at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
Addressing the Gap in Menstrual Health Rights in Venezuela
By Marianne Luna
April 29, 2019
“In these times of crisis, this menstrual cup has really helped. I can now save money and stop worrying about what I’m going to use when I have my period because sanitary towels and tampons are very hard to find, and when I do find some products, they are very expensive. It [the menstrual cup] is so comfortable to use, and now I never worry about staining my clothing. It is really a huge relief. With the money that I save, I no longer have to make hard decisions, like choosing between buying a pack of sanitary towels or chicken to feed my family.”
– , Caracas, Venezuela.
In February 2018, I co-founded a non-governmental organization (NGO) to help women in disadvantaged situations menstruate with dignity. For this project I teamed up with Véronique Lahaie Luna and Rosana Lezama, both undergraduate students at the time at the University of Ottawa with strong backgrounds in international development and who are passionate about improving women's rights in Latin America.
Lahaie Luna Lezama NGO, a Civil Association for Women's Reproductive Rights has set out to address the gap in menstrual health rights in Venezuela as its primary mission. The NGO provides long term environmentally and economically sustainable menstrual hygiene products such as menstrual cups to Venezuelan women in need.
Venezuela has recently headlined news stories due to the unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Recent studies show that there is around a 90% shortage of basic supplies, medical supplies and medication in hospitals and public clinics across the entire country. The lack of these basic supplies has resulted in a collapse of fundamental basic services, significantly affecting low-income households. Family planning and sexual health care programs created either by the government or by NGOs only cover 22% of the country’s population, resulting in a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products and contraceptives. With an inflation rate of 1.62 million percent as of March 2019, menstrual hygiene products often cost what someone with a minimum wage salary would make in two to three months—when the products are even available.
Menstruation is still a taboo subject in most Latin American countries including Venezuela. This is quite obvious when you analyze what type of humanitarian aid is being provided to Venezuelans. Often, shipments sent as foreign aid to Venezuela lack items that are essential to women’s menstrual and reproductive health, such as menstrual hygiene products, personal hygiene products and contraceptive products.
Not being able to access these products takes a toll on both the personal and professional lives of these women. This in turn negatively impacts women's confidence, self-esteem, dignity and productivity, all of which significantly prevents them from achieving their educational and professional goals, and their ability to contribute to their communities. The lack of access to menstrual hygiene products has become such an obstacle for these women that many have resorted to using old clothes, articles of clothing and even cardboard during their menstruation. These unhygienic alternative menstrual hygiene methods can result in bacterial growth that potentially can lead to severe systemic infections.
We co-founders, all Venezuelan-born women, were fortunate enough to never have endured hardships when acquiring menstrual hygiene products. After much research, however, we were shocked to learn about the current conditions that many Venezuelan women confront during their menstruation. This is when we decided to not only raise awareness of this issue, but also fill the gap in menstrual health aid in a sustainable manner, while helping in reducing the overall environmental impact associated with menstruation. That's when we learned about a relatively new menstrual hygiene product, the menstrual cup, a product that when properly cared for can be reused and last up to seven years, making it both an economic and environmentally sustainable alternative.
In August 2018, we set out to help more than a hundred women in Venezuela menstruate with dignity. We collaborated with PLAFAM (the equivalent of Planned Parenthood in Venezuela) for our first project. We held information sessions in four PLAFAM clinics around Caracas (located in Altagracia, , Las Acacias and Petare), where either local staff, a gynecologist or one of the co-founders would explain the use of the menstrual cup and educate women on menstrual rights. After these information sessions, interested participants received a donation of a menstrual cup. We also collected information from these women in order to get a better understanding of their current menstrual routine, what obstacles they face, and how the use of this cup could improve their everyday lives. In order to complete this, a two-part questionnaire was filled out by all who received a donation; the first part of the questionnaire was filled that same day, and the second part was completed three months later after the women had used the menstrual cup for a few cycles.
In January 2019, the NGO collaborated on a second project with a local organization called CEPAZ (Centro de Justicia y Paz), and worked together to help address the menstrual needs of migrant Venezuelan women in regions near the border with Colombia. Colombia is the first destination of migratory flows of refugees from Venezuela, and the main gateway to the Colombian territory is the border in the state of Táchira. Migrant women are more exposed than men to forced labor, sexual exploitation, forced prostitution and other forms of violence, and often lack information and rights to prevent and cure sexually transmitted infections. Migrant women are more likely to accept precarious working conditions, and with lower wages, often below the legal minimum due to the factor of their uncertain legal status in the country, among others. This collaborative project is also supported by civil society organizations in the fostering of knowledge that promotes reflection on sexual health and reproductive health of women. In January 2019, around 400 ecological kits, which included menstrual, personal and sexual hygiene products, were distributed to migrant women near the Colombian border.
Planning and executing these types of projects inevitably come, as one would imagine, with their own sets of challenges and risks especially since they primarily take place in some of the world's most dangerous cities. However, despite the numerous obstacles faced, we are still diligently working to expand the scope of our work to not only ensure that women in Venezuela can menstruate with dignity, but to also help migrant Venezuelan women in dire need of assistance living in neighboring Latin American countries.
The Lahaie Luna Lezama NGO aspires to reduce and eventually end the stigma around menstrual health in Venezuela and Latin America, and start the conversation about how menstruation is an essential topic in global health, women’s health and women’s rights. We strongly believe that menstruating with dignity is not a luxury, but rather a fundamental human right.
Completing an internship at the Harvard School of Public Health and working in an interdisciplinary team conducting groundbreaking research in the field of Environmental Health will definitely positively impact the future projects of the Lahaie Luna Lezama NGO. I have gained invaluable skills that will allow me to think outside of the box, and develop creative solutions to the challenging problems not addressed by many.
If you would like to learn more about our NGO or keep up to date with our work, you are welcomed to follow us on our social media pages:
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