‘So many Black women have never used a tampon before,’ | Vicksburg sisters talk period stigma in Mississippi
“I think there’s something so special about sitting with Black women to talk about periods.”
VICKSBURG, Miss. (WLBT) - The 2016 election has solidified itself as being one of the most historic elections.
While it was not the first election to air a presidential debate on television, nor was it the first to feature a celebrity, this election meant different things to different people.
Laila Brown, 16, was still in middle school when business mogul and media personality Donald Trump was announced as president-elect.
“I was growing up in the most awkward stage in my life, when the world was so politically polarized, and the world was going into mayhem.”
Though she was not old enough to cast her ballot, she did learn one thing from this election, and it was that she wanted to be an activist.
Activism runs in her family. Her older sister Asia Brown, 20, has always been into advocacy work; however she cites that her interest stems from experiences of colorism, sexism and growing up in the “deep south.”
“I feel like if you’re Black, and on top of that a woman, you don’t have a choice but to be involved in some way,” Asia stated.
“I was just kind of forced to care about the things I was impacted by growing up.”
Drawing from their many influences and experiences, the sisters realized that they wanted to play an integral role in their community in Vicksburg.
In 2021 the sisters formed their grassroots organization “601 For Period Equity,” a program that has provided over 500 menstrual care packages to menstruators in need across the state of Mississippi, while also focusing on reproductive justice and menstruation education.
“We were both volunteering as ambassadors for ‘The Pad Project,’” Asia explained.
“The Pad Project is focused on menstrual equity and breaking down period stigma around the world, not even just in the United States, but in other countries as well.”
Through their experience as ambassadors, they were introduced to what Asia refers to as the “mainstream equity movement.”
“I think as young ‚Black women we felt as if it was very ‘white-washed,’“ Asia said.
Both sisters agree that while the period equity movement seeks to help all women, it fails to reach marginalized communities, who may experience menstruation and period poverty in different ways.
“Not to reflect poorly on The Pad Project, but I felt like the broader movement was very white-woman centered, and it didn’t focus on the needs of Black menstruating people, and reproductive justice. I just feel like menstrual equity can be such a diverse space.”
Identifying that there wasn’t anything like this in Mississippi, nor in Vicksburg, the sisters took it upon themselves to start gathering supplies for girls and women in need, while also working to end period stigma in the Black community.
“If you don’t see something, just make it yourself,” Asia said.
“I’m thankful that we had the honor of creating something like this,” Laila explained.
“If there was already something here, then we would have just joined that. I think there is something special about being able to create your own organization that aligns with our values, and what we see in the community.”
One of their organization’s pillars is education, in which they seek to educate menstruators and others in a way that empowers them. However, in educating others, the pair learned more about themselves in the process.
“I had to do a lot of self reflecting,” Asia explained.
“I looked back at the period shame that I experienced as a young woman, this abstinence only sex education. I felt like I had a lot of shame in my body, sexuality, and my own reproductive system. I had to do a lot of unlearning to encourage myself so that I could encourage and empower others.”
601 For Period Equity was built on the slogan of “Uplifting Black menstruators and fighting stigma and period poverty!”, which Laila explains draws heavily from the experiences and influences of Black women in their community.
“Within the Black community, a lot of mainstream equity movements are very ‘white-centered.’ We don’t usually think about what it means to Black and menstruating.”
The sisters believe that creating open dialogue and reflecting on their own experiences were integral in starting their movement. Laila cites her own period shame from her freshman year of high school, where she was scared to even open a pad out of fear she would make too much noise.
Laila says that if it wasn’t for talking to other Black women and girls in her community through her organization, she would still be in the same place.
“I don’t have to be scared anymore. I’ve been able to let go of the stigma that I had, while still preaching to end the stigma worldwide.”
Asia’s eyes widen as she talks about what she believes is a privilege to talk to Black women about their periods. She is honored to have many intergenerational conversations with not just her mother, but generations of Black women before her, in hopes of helping them work through the stigmas they have faced.
“So many Black women have never used a tampon before. It was just so taboo.”
The Brown sisters are pleased with the work they have done in just 10 months, but it still isn’t enough for them. They are already working to expand their advocacy.
Their activism for period equity and reproductive comes at a time that many women around the world are also protesting for similar things such as the controversial abortion bans in Texas and Mississippi.
“I’m incredibly passionate about abortion access,” Asia explained.
Asia worked at the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, or what she refers to as “The Pink House.”
Asia begins to tell of her experience as a volunteer at The Pink House, which is the only abortion clinic left in the state of Mississippi, and the subject of the documentary, “Jackson”, directed by Maisie Crow.
The multiple experiences that she has encountered, along with the women that she met has shaped her stance on the Mississippi abortion ban.
She explained that the problems extend past the exterior which include masses of protesters daily. Asia’s scariest moment didn’t involve her fear of protesters, but she feared for the woman entering the building.
“I don’t think people understand how dangerous this ban could actually be, specifically for Black women. There’s already so many barriers that affect people from accessing this simple procedure.”
Laila’s insight comes from a different view, as she has served on youth councils in her town. She has been able to see the role that legislators truly play in the decision making process, as she has also called for better sex education in Mississippi schools.
“I think being a teenager and knowing people who were pregnant as teenager and students, and not having that choice is scary,” Laila explained.
“That’s just not a decision that a white male legislator should make.”
Among working through ways to expand their advocacy, the organization is working to obtain non-profit status. However, the absence of this title, has not stopped them from impacting their community.
“I think sometimes we get caught up in the idea of ‘oh we have to be a non-profit,’ or ‘oh we have to have national recognition,’” Asia explained.
“If people in your community know you for who you are, and what you do, then that’s enough for me. I think the people in Vicksburg, and the surrounding areas are just that special.”
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