Jeyetna: Helping to define & tackle Lebanon's period poverty
For almost two years, Lebanon has been sinking further into chaos, fuelled by a dire economic crisis that has led to extreme fuel, food, water and medicine shortages. While these subjects make frequent news headlines, the economic crisis has also afflicted a less publicised and often taboo topic: periods.
The greatly inflated price of sanitary products and painkillers, assuming they can be found, has led to increased rates of period poverty in Lebanon. Some women have restored to using fabric scraps, tissue paper or already used products, as they can no longer afford pads or tampons.
Seeking to spread awareness about and destigmatise period poverty, the Jeyetna Festival has been touring the country, from big cities to rural villages, to help and educate women about their bodies.
"Part of the festival’s aim is to define period poverty, as it currently has no official parameters"
“Our truck driver is a guy and he’s been driving this big white truck with bloody period pants and Jeyetna on the front,” Jeyetna cofounder Evelina Llewellyn told The New Arab. “He was saying at first he wasn’t very comfortable but now he really is, which makes me smile. It took some courage as I don’t think he fully knew what he was signing up for.
“We often follow him in the car, driving past these cafes full of men in Akkar. It’s all these small messages we’re passing, trying to talk about and create awareness about periods,” she added. “It’s about making it part of a normal, everyday conversation, that doesn’t need to have this big stigma about it.”
The festival, cofounded with Assil Khalife and Vanessa Zammar, stems from a documentary directed by Llewellyn that tells the stories of 10 women aged 11-65, speaking about their periods. By the end of August, the mobile festival will have made 20 stops.
“We wanted to make sure that the documentary was seen by the right people who needed it the most. The risk with something like this is that you put it online and it’s only found by people who are already engaged in the cause,” Llewellyn said.
“There’s a marketplace where women can get all their period products – we have cups, period panties and reusable pads that were made in Lebanon by two NGOs we’ve parented with (Wing Woman and Days for Girls), as well as disposable tampons and pads.
“The women get sessions about them and they can leave choosing the product that suits them the most,” she added. “We also have the ‘safe space,’ where we have medical students that can answer the women’s questions, where we run focus sessions and discussions and a space where women can share stories and communicate.”
To make the events less serious, stand-up comedy nights and snacks are also included, to make the women feel like they’re having a night away from partners or children, to focus on themselves.
Part of the festival’s aim is to define period poverty, as it currently has no official parameters. Jeyetna describes it as fulfilling one or more of four tenets: the lack of access to sanitary products, the lack of access to a bathroom that is clean and secure, the lack of access to education and information about periods and the lack of access to safe spaces, which could be a person to confide in or an area a woman feels comfortable.
“Because of the crisis in Lebanon, there is this new group of the middle class that could afford period products before and have never been in period poverty, who suddenly are,” Llewellyn said. “For a woman, who’s been taught that it’s a shameful topic, to suddenly be unable to talk about not having access to basic needs for your period, it can feel very humiliating and embarrassing.”
A lot of time is spent at the stops introducing women to sustainable products and correcting misconceptions about menstruation. With little formal education given on the topic at the best of times, many women in Lebanon go their whole lives unaware of how their cycles work.
Having gynaecologists and other specialists on hand allows the women to ask questions and receive accurate information.
“We’re introducing tampons and menstrual cups to communities that have never heard of them, and there are always a lot of questions about hymens and virginity,” Llewellyn said. “The second thing we’ve come across a lot is so many women who are older, at the age of 40 or 50 who have finished having periods or at the end of having them, that are asking very basic questions about their bodies.
“It’s such a crime that so many women go through their whole lives without properly understanding their bodies and basic things about their own cycles,” she added.
“We have questions like ‘How long should my cycle be?’ and ‘Is this irregularity normal? Or ideas like, you can’t go swimming on your period, or you can’t eat this, or shower on your period, that just creeps into society.”
Although women are the festival’s primary focus, there have also been focus groups for men, as they are an essential part of destigmatising the issue. A male support wall at the stops gives advice to men on ways they can help the women in their lives.
"It’s such a crime that so many women go through their whole lives without properly understanding their bodies and basic things about their own cycles"
Jeyetna intends to continue their work beyond the tour’s final stop, by collecting their own data and research from the women they meet. They’ll be factoring in things like mood swings, food cravings and small irregularities often dismissed by the medical world, despite affecting women on a daily basis.
“It’s a fact worldwide that there is a huge gender gap in the medical world about women and periods,” Llewellyn said. “We’ve got the perfect example right now with women saying that the COVID vaccines have changed their periods, but no research has been done on this.
“Another example is that one out of four women in Lebanon has Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and it’s been diagnosed for about 80 years but there is so little research about it,” she added.
“Through these testimonies and data we’re collecting from the women, we’re hoping to work on a longer-term understanding of women’s needs and what they’re actually experiencing.”
Maghie Ghali is a British-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. She works full time for The Daily Star Lebanon and writes as a freelancer for a number of publications, including The National, Al Arabiya English, Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye, on arts and culture/design, environment and humanitarian topics.
Follow her on Twitter: @mghali6