Bloody lockdown. How Covid-19 has changed talking about periods.
Xenia is a women's group which BGP has had the privilege of partnering with over the past year. Xenia strives to provide education that is creative, collaborative, and emphasises connection - much like our own education programme. We were due to co-facilitate a menstrual health and hygiene session with the women from Xenia as lockdown hit - so we are currently looking at alternative ways to work together , so that women can still meaningfully access this essential education.
Note: the term ‘women’ here references the women Xenia work with, who identify as female.
Thoughts from Ioanna, Organiser with Xenia Women
A few years ago, some friends and I had a conversation around all the different euphemisms women use to refer to their period. It was quite a mixed group of women, from a few different countries and backgrounds, so you can imagine that we came up with quite an impressive list, from the commonly-used in English “time of the month” and “on the rag” to others involving communists or the Red Army and various relatives (mainly aunts) “visiting”. I remember thinking how problematic it was that we needed to disguise such a natural phenomenon in such elaborate ways, but knowing that other women were thinking the same way gave me hope that collectively we can try to change perceptions and taboos around periods.
This idea of bringing together women from different backgrounds to share experiences, connect and learn from each other is what we do at Xenia. We particularly welcome women learning English to participate alongside women who speak fluent English, using Xenia sessions as a time to practise the language, connect with people they wouldn’t otherwise meet and learn about each other’s perspectives through friendship and shared learning.
The relationship between Xenia and Bloody Good Period started over two years ago, when we first became aware of BGP’s brilliant work providing menstrual products to women who can’t afford them, as well as the amazing educational work through which BGP provides information regarding menstrual, sexual and reproductive health. Just before the lockdown happened, we were working closely to develop a session that would work as an opportunity for our participants, a lot of which are migrants, refugees or asylum seekers learning English, to familiarise themselves with the vocabulary around periods and menstrual health, as well as share their own experiences, ask questions and gain a better understanding of the services that are available to them.
Seeing as talking about periods is still a taboo in many cultures, there are very few spaces and contexts, even in this country, within which women can openly discuss menstruation, even if they are confident or native English speakers. For women who are learning English, this is even more prominent, as there is the extra barrier of not having the language to even refer to menstruation as a bodily process, much less to discuss particular experiences around periods – a fact that only reinforced our belief in the importance of planning a session with BGP. Even though we were not able to do an in-person session due to the pandemic, we kept exploring the possibility for a virtual session instead.
Xenia sessions are themed and structured so that they can be accessed by everyone irrespective of their level of English. They encourage women who participate in the sessions to practice English but also share personal experiences, learn from each other and support each other. At the same time, as organisers we try to make sure that the themes we discuss are relevant to our participants’ lives; for a lot of them, Xenia sessions function as a safe space where they can share life stories and experiences they only feel comfortable talking about amongst other women. Before the lockdown, that space was a physical one - Hackney Museum’s learning room, which has been our home for almost four years. Since the 21st March however, our sessions have been taking place virtually, via Zoom, and our participants are able to join the sessions either online, or by calling in via a toll-free number.
When we found out about the “Mind your Bloody language” campaign we thought it would be an amazing opportunity to encourage our participants to share their own experiences of the language used around periods in their various home countries and in the UK, as well as their own thoughts and ideas on periods and period talk. Having worked in close partnership with BGP for several months, supporting this campaign was a no-brainer; and we knew that planning a session around this theme would be the most effective way to facilitate our participants’ involvement in the campaign to contextualize it and highlight its relevance to our lives as women. Essentially, as a result of such a session, this piece would have been written by them, featuring their voices and experiences – potentially even their own lists of period euphemisms. But, once more, the reality of the pandemic interfered with our plans.
Delivering our sessions virtually has been an incredible learning experience and being able to still come together as Xenia community using this technology is something we are extremely grateful for. However, a number of challenges come with it, particularly in terms of safeguarding our participants as much as possible while continuing to offer meaningful learning experiences. Even though we take care to ensure that our virtual sessions are taking place in a safe and comfortable online space, the fact remains that women join the sessions from their homes, meaning that for those of them that live with other people, particularly other family members, such as partners or children, privacy during the session is not always an option. Delivering a session during which participants are encouraged to discuss personal experiences around menstruation can be challenging even in the physical space, as participants’ opinions vary regarding what is acceptable and appropriate to discuss with other women even in the safest and most supportive of environments. Attempting to deliver it online though potentially carries serious dangers, from excluding participants who are unable to access the necessary level of privacy in their homes, to unwillingly putting some of the most vulnerable of them at risk if an abusive member of their household overhears their conversations.
At the same time, our effort to safeguard our participants extends to also protecting, as much as possible, their mental health and wellbeing. A number of the women who take part in Xenia sessions have experienced trauma in the past, while some of them are also directly affected by the COVID-19 crisis in ways that can be very traumatic on their own. As a result, we quickly realised the need to change the way we work in order to better support our participants; for example, we have increased our outreach work at this time, making individual calls to regular Xenia participants each week, checking in and signposting them to services as needed. We knew that we had to be mindful of the various ways in which the pandemic and the lockdown affect everyone in our community, particularly from a mental health point of view, and made the decision to generally choose topics and activities that can help people move away from the negative thoughts and feelings that they might be experiencing either as a direct result of this crisis or more generally.
Trying to keep a balance between facilitating virtual sessions that are meaningful and relevant to our participants while ensuring accessibility and safety is not an easy thing to do. We are conscious of the fact that not being able to give the women we work with the opportunity to share their stories and insights on the language around periods, not only prevents them from connecting over shared experiences, but potentially blocks them from accessing useful information on menstrual health at a time during which stress and extreme lifestyle changes can have an impact on different women’s cycles.
We are confident that we have made these decisions having our participants’ safety and mental wellbeing as the main priority. We are, however, looking forward to being back in our Xenia space to open again those conversations, share our experiences, disagree with each other, learn from each other and find common ground – the Xenia way.
To find out more, please visit www.xenia.org.uk. To keep up to date with Xenia's activities you can sign up to their newsletter or follow them on Facebook and Twitter. If you have any questions about Xenia or would like to learn from their model, please email [email protected]