About the conference "Breaking the Taboo: Menstrual Justice for All" | 31.05.2023

For the occasion of the International Day of Menstrual Hygiene (May 28), and motivated by the research conducted in partnership between Tiiiit! Inc. and Reactor in 2021, on May 31 the Association for the Promotion of Women's Activity Tiiiit! Inc. together with the initiative PERIOD.Skopje held the conference "Breaking the Taboo: Menstrual Justice for All!", at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Skopje. The purpose of this conference was to develop a discussion on the state of menstrual justice in the country and offer solutions for the eventual eradication of menstrual poverty as well as breaking down taboos and stigmas related to menstruation.

The research carried out in 2021 "Menstrual justice: a comprehensive study on access to menstrual hygiene in the Republic of North Macedonia, assessment of conditions with menstrual poverty and recommendations for the advancement of policies" gave us an insight into what the situation is in the country and according to the findings a list of recommendations was created which this country should take into account in implementing mechanisms to reduce menstrual poverty. Although from 2021 until today, certain progress has been achieved in the direction of introducing new policies, the challenges for essentially overcoming the problems are still present. It is therefore necessary to overcome these challenges, which will encourage changes in public policies that would lead to systemic solutions and the creation of functional mechanisms and measures related to menstruation as part of efforts to improve sexual and reproductive health, while also following the guidelines of the World Health Organization and the recommendations of the UN Committee on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.

This is the first conference organized in North Macedonia that focuses on the issue of menstrual poverty, where representatives of institutions and the civil sector, parliamentarians, young female activists and students took part, who through their initiatives made an important step regarding menstrual justice. Of the initiatives launched so far to facilitate access to menstrual products, unfortunately none has yet been realized. The two initiatives, such as the commitment of the Council of the City of Skopje to provide free menstrual hygiene products for all high school girls in the schools of the City, or the one to reduce the tax on menstrual hygiene products from 18% to 5%, a measure that was announced as a decision of the Government, Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski, unfortunately have not been implemented despite the announcement last year. The conference was opened with this conclusion from the first panel, with the participation of Ana Vasileva, Jana Kocevska (Tiiiit! Inc.), Teodora Mileska (PERIOD.Skopje) and Elena Grozdanova, State Counselor for Gender Equality (MTSP).

The panel that followed looked at positive examples, most notably the example in Scotland where the advocacy for menstrual justice led to legislation within the Scottish Parliament committing Scotland, as of 2021, to provide free menstrual products in schools and institutions and to every male and female citizen who need funds to manage menstruation. The opening address was given by the parliamentarian of the Scottish Parliament - Monica Lennon, credited for the advocacy process in the parliament that resulted in the passing of a special law.

She explained to those present at the Holiday Inn hotel the complete process and the situation in Scotland and explained the implementation of the Law and the essential need for its introduction. After her 15-minute online address, there was a Q&A session where the audience in Skopje had the opportunity to ask Ms. Lennon about many aspects of the case in Scotland, such as the accessibility of this policy to marginalized people, trans people, then issues related to the representation process and the like. At the end of the session, Ms. Lennon encouraged the audience that building coalitions and networks with all stakeholders, including the community, decision makers, the media and others is the key to bringing about the desired change.

On the panel dedicated to political stands and actions in relation to menstrual poverty, moderated by Biljana Ginova, MPs Gordana Siljanovska – Davkova, Monika Zajkova and Sanela Shkrijelj spoke about the current commitment to introducing policies related to menstrual poverty. On this panel, MP Sanela Shkrijelj referred to the importance of the need to introduce comprehensive sexual education as a way for children to learn accurate and precise information about their bodies and to prevent the stigma and shame associated with menstruation. She also emphasized that education and training are needed for the teaching staff, but also, the engagement of parents.

The panel on "Menstrual poverty and justice according to research findings", was moderated by Biljana Kotevska and the following persons participated: Marija Trcol and Petra Chargonja from the partner organization PaRiter from Rijeka - Croatia, Ana Bojchevska - researcher at Reactor and Emilia Angelova - President of the Committee on Equal Opportunities For Women and Men at the City of Skopje.

Marija Trcol and Petra Chargonja from the PaRiter organization from Rijeka, Croatia have also conducted this type of research in Croatia which has led to more open discussion of menstrual poverty and de-tabooing of menstruation related topics. This year, for the first time, the PaRiter organization also organized a menstruation festival “Menarha”, dedicated to educating young people about coping with their first period. This is the only festival of this type in the Balkans. Emilia Angelova (City of Skopje) pointed out that although funds were allocated to provide menstrual products to high school students last year (2022), the purpose of these funds was later redirected. For the year 2023, within the framework of the council, twice as many funds (4 million denars) were voted within the City Council, for which the City of Skopje has not yet initiated the implementation of, while half of the school year has already passed.

The concluding observations of this panel showed that menstrual poverty is the most invisible public crisis and menstrual justice is neglected as an essential prerequisite for the full and completerealization of human rights. From the research findings, we learn about different strategies for dealing with menstrual poverty, from compromising on menstrual hygiene to auto-tuning and auto-censoring language ie. the way we talk about menstruation. The researchers explained that the costs at the individual level are significant and they increase in correlation with class or exposure to or living in poverty. The general conclusion of this panel session was that education has the potential for reducing menstrual poverty and the educational process should be accompanied by multi-level actions that would address the many challenges related to menstrual poverty and injustice, including their intersectional realities. What is significant is that political will is key, but so is building broad coalitions and a base of support and mobilization on this issue.

In the panel in which young people shared their opinions and experiences entitled "Menstrual justice and young people", the following persons participated: Elena Saveska from the initiative "Misli malce", Anastasija Markovska from the Student Assembly at Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technologies (FEIT), Marta Chadikovska - coordinator of "HERA Youth" and Anisija Ugrinovska, UN Youth delegate, and was moderated by Natalija Krstevska (Period.Skopje).

Markovska shared a positive experience where an agreement was successfully reached with the Faculty Dean for free pads on a monthly basis for all female students in the Faculty building, and the necessary dispensers were printed with a 3D-printer designed by one of the students. This is also a unique positive example of the experience of young people in their attempts to de-taboo and break the stigma around menstruation.

Ugrinovska shared that in the new National Strategy for Youth there are several resolutions that refer to youth and menstrual justice. But the general conclusion is that providing conditions for dignified menstruation is a field where the institutions and the entire country - fail.

Photos by Sonja Stavrova