Journalist Katie Milanowicz first began thinking about the way periods are handled in Nauru detention centres when she was working for Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young. At the office, the advocates she worked with often spoke about how for asylum seekers, managing menstruation is a complicated and often humiliating process. Pads and tampons are in short supply at the privately run centre, so each time they had their period they would need to line up for up to three hours to ask one of the male guards for a small allocation of sanitary products. During this wait, people would often bleed through their clothes.
In Nauru, pads and tampons have been flagged as fire hazards, these "security reasons" mean they can only be handed out in small numbers. As a result it's impossible to maintain a private supply that can be accessed when needed.
Like a growing number of Australian women, Katie uses a menstruation cup and immediately realised they would be a practical solution to these issues. This week she created a change.org petition to make the silicone cups available to asylum seekers. She plans to present the petition to Immigration and Border Protection minister Peter Dutton. VICE spoke to her about a seemingly simple solution to a very complicated problem.
VICE: Hey Katie, for those unfamiliar with how women in detention manage their periods, can you give a bit of context?
Katie Milanowicz: Women have access to a limited amount of sanitary pads and tampons per menstrual cycle, and they have to line up for hours each day to get their allocation.
The guards that give them out are male, so a lot of them are embarrassed and will avoid going to get their pads or they won't have enough. Also some women experience significantly heavier flows and that's don't taken into consideration with allocations. Basically they're not getting enough, and they're often embarrassed to ask for more so many use tent cloths as a makeshift pads.
Why are there these restrictions?
The reasoning the department has given for the rationing has been that pads are a fire hazard. In one of the riots pads were set alight and used as fire starters—they've used that argument to limit the use of sanitary pads. I just think, if that's the reason, why hasn't the solution of menstrual cups been put forward? Numerous advocates have spoken about them, but it doesn't get much attention because as we know women's reproductive rights are not an easy public conversation.
Take us through the argument for the cups?
Menstrual cups are completely reusable, and they're made of silicone so have a low flammability. They also don't pose health risks like toxic shock syndrome, and are environmentally friendly. You use one cup for the entirety of your period and they can last for up to 12 hours—you don't have to worry about changing them during the day.
In Australia, they are popular because they reduce from waste of pads and tampons. But they need to rinsed and washed to be reused. With limited access to bathrooms don't they pose hygiene issues?
There are obviously issue with restricted access to water, and I am aware of that, but you can use a cloth or paper to wipe them down. They're very easy to clean, it takes less than 30 seconds. You really need very little water, and at the end of the cycle some people boil them, but wiping them is sufficient.
And no matter what, it's going to be quicker and less embarrassing for women than lining up for three hours and asking a male guard for a ration of pads.
It feels like this discussion exists totally outside of the centre, have the women themselves pushed for them?
No, I don't think this solution has really been presented to these women. Remember, most Australians are still new to the idea of menstrual cups.
That begs the question, how do we know they want them? As you said, even in Australia a lot of women find the idea of cups, and learning a new way to manage their periods, pretty confronting.
Definitely, I've said in the campaign that not all women are comfortable with using them, but they should be provided with them as an option. It comes back to it being as confronting to ask a male guard for pads. You're already battling cultural boundaries, this is just a different way of managing them. If you provide this option to women, they can learn about it and try it in the safety of their own female group, and talk about it together without having to involve a male guard.
It does take a few goes, but keep in mind these are women who are using tent cloths. Ultimately it's about providing another option and giving them the choice.
While it's obviously important to provide another option, shouldn't we also be thinking about fixing the issues around access to pads and tampons?
Yes, and there have been many calls from advocates to improve the system, but it's all met with the same response from the department saying it's a security risk and they're now shifting from it. We're at a deadlock, we need to try something else.
The cups cost upwards of $40, could that be an issue?
They're far more cost effective than pads or tampons over the reproductive life of a woman.
They're reusable and last years, where pads and tampons are used once and done. At the moment we're spending hundreds of dollars per woman each year on pads and tampons.
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