Bruna, 29 years old, graduated in Physical Education, has been living on the streets for six years in downtown São Paulo. She knows she must have regular blood tests, a gynecological checkup once a year, and other health care. “Today, SUS agents [Sistema Único de Saúde] they came here to talk about the Pink October”, she says in front of the camping tent where she lives with her husband, in Praça da República. What Bruna still didn’t know on Friday is that, a day earlier, President Jair Bolsonaro had vetoed the free distribution of tampons for women like her, who live in vulnerable situations. “Wow!” she reacted, surprised, surrounded by the four dogs she considers her children. She depends on donations from health workers, social workers or civil organizations to be able to use pads during her menstrual period. “When there is no donation, the way is to use toilet paper, or paper that we find on the street”, he says. Eventually, she says, it is possible to resort to the solidarity of other women who live in the square. “Even if we don’t like each other, at these times, we just hand over the tampon, we don’t even have to talk, but we don’t leave the other without.”
Bolsonaro’s veto of two articles in the Program for the Protection and Promotion of Menstrual Health, approved by Congress last month, could leave 5.6 million women without access to this item — they are students in a situation of social vulnerability, women in situations of street, in addition to inmates, and interned in units to fulfill socio-educational measures. Not to mention other people who also menstruate, such as trans men and non-binary people. “That way, the girls will have to go back to doing what they were in my day, which was to keep the blood running down their legs or tie plastic bags to their hips”, laments 56-year-old Eugênia Souza, who no longer menstruates, but has passed because of this situation in the many years she has lived on the street — she can no longer remember how many. Before talking to the reporter, she washed herself superficially in the lake in the square.
The lack of something as basic as water is one of the main aspects of menstrual poverty, which goes beyond the lack of money to buy hygiene products. In Brazil, 1.5 million women and 413,000 girls live in homes without bathrooms, according to the National Health Survey. With the economic crisis aggravated by the covid-19 pandemic, the situation worsened: on September 14, a A survey conducted by Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health showed that 29% of Brazilian women between 14 and 45 years old had financial difficulties in the last 12 months to buy menstruation products and 21% have difficulties every month. “When I have some money, I already set it aside for it and manage to buy it”, says Bruna. Other homeless women interviewed by EL PAÍS, who did not want to identify themselves, say that when there are no donations, they are forced to ask for tampons at the doors of supermarkets and pharmacies.
Activist Matuzza Sankofa, coordinator of Casa Chama, on LGBTQIA+ shelter and culture, and member of the É de Lei Coexistence Center, focused on harm reduction policies, recalls, however, that debating menstrual poverty does not mean just talking about tampons. “It is also necessary to talk about access to public bathrooms with a place to take a shower, access to public laundry facilities so that these people can sanitize their clothes… This is a preventive health policy. The SUS also exists to take care of the population preventively and prevent people from reaching the health system only when they need treatment for an illness”, he argues. The activist says that projects such as Vidas no Centro, by the City of São Paulo, which set up toilet and sink stations in seven points in the central region to serve the population during the pandemic, should be perpetuated and expanded throughout the country.
The text of the Program for the Protection and Promotion of Menstrual Health — whose investment estimated by the Senate would be 84.5 million reais per year, taking into account eight pads per month/woman — foresaw that the money for the distribution of these items would come from resources of the SUS. Bolsonaro vetoed this passage precisely because he alleges that the bill does not meet the principle of universality of the health system, since it stipulates specific beneficiaries, and that absorbents are not on the list of drugs considered essential. The president’s decision can still be overturned in Congress National, which has 30 days to veto it. Last Friday, after the controversy generated by the veto, the Government stated that it is still studying ways to “enable the application of the measure”.
Without the support of the State, many people need to rely on initiatives such as the social projects of Matuzza, whose department she coordinates at the É de Lei Coexistence Center distributes not only tampons, but panties and underwear for menstruating people, as well as informative pamphlets about how to use these products. “There are people who have been living on the street for so long that they don’t even know how to put a tampon in their underwear, or how to properly sanitize these items”, he recalls.
After years of volunteering on various projects, Mirela Cavichioli realized in the pandemic that “the needs of menstruating people were not being met” even by initiatives that had the best intentions. “I saw almost all donation kits with soap, toilet paper, toothbrushes, but it was rare to see tampons being included”, he says. She then met with four friends to create Projeto Absorber, which for seven months has been distributing sanitary pads, condoms and other basic hygiene products to homeless people living in squatters. Whenever possible, they invite gynecologists to talk about sexual health. “Menstrual poverty inhibits people from looking at and taking care of their bodies. To live in this situation is to live without dignity”, he summarizes.
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