With great power comes great responsibility

By Yujia Yang

What does it take to lead the Groningen branch of a major international organisation?

Eli Berghuis (20) is the president of Amnesty International Student Group Groningen (AISGG). She joined the group two years ago as a freshman in university. “I have always been very passionate about the protection of human rights”, Eli says. “Although being a part of the Amnesty International organisation is a small way to contribute, I believe it still could make the world a little better.”

Go big or go home

During her first year, she was in the Write for Right committee, which organises one of the annual writing marathons in Groningen on International Human Rights Day. It is one of the traditions set up by Amnesty International to write letters for prisoners of conscience and for those who have been wrongfully detained.

“In Groningen, we write letters to the government to put pressure on them, to say ‘hey, your policies don’t line up with human rights’. It’s still my favourite committee, even though I am not allowed to have a favourite,” states Eli.

After being accepted by the National Student Campaign committee last year, she had an opportunity to work closely with the board here in Groningen. They have created a campaign that opens dialogues about discrimination in universities by collaborating with all 11 of the student boards around the Netherlands.

“After it ended, I wondered what was next for me. I thought ‘go big or go home’. So, I applied for a board member position. The board saw my enthusiasm and determination, not only on raising human rights awareness by doing campaigns, but also by trying to solve funding problems even now, which is very difficult but important.”

What does independence mean?

Amnesty International is independent of political pressures exerted by governments and universities. None of the Amnesty student groups are funded by the organization’s headquarters. They fundraise by hosting small activities and events, like movie nights and the annual collection for charity.

Eli explains that Amnesty International Netherlands (AINL) must make every financial report 100% transparent and public, so that people know where their money is going to. However, with 11 student groups across the Netherlands who organise their own events, it is more difficult to keep track of every single cost.

“As a donator to AINL,” she says, “it is positive in the sense that I know whether my money is used in a good way or not. As a member of AISGG it can be rather annoying.”

She thinks it is a shame that the headquarters don’t support them financially. “They have not realised how much potential the student groups have. They only know that we are independent”, she continues. “We have great ideas, but we are just unable to do it because we do not have money.”

Eli and presidents from other student groups have already taken steps to build up a closer relationship between the groups and the headquarters. However, as a large and international organisation, it is not easy to change overnight.

Make the world better, even a little

Having played a crucial role in AISGG for almost three years, the group has become the biggest part of Eli’s life. “Besides my studies, it’s my main priority,” she laughs. “I am always thinking and talking about it, as well as sharing my passion and unforgettable experiences with everyone.”

After organising and participating in many campaigns and activities across the Netherlands and Europe, she remembers two campaigns that impressed her the most. One is called “kijk niet weg”, which means “don’t look away”. It is about helping the refugee situation in Lesbos, Greece, where the refugee camps are overcrowded. AISGG prompted the Dutch government one month ago to take in 1000 refugees, and are now waiting for a response.

The second campaign concerns discrimination. Eli collaborated on this project with other student boards in the Netherlands. She says that she was surprised by how open-minded people were, but also “shocked” by how much discrimination exists in higher education in the Netherlands.

“Students we helped were not afraid to share their personal stories and opinions with us. For example, an African girl complained about unequal treatment she received from one of her professors because of her skin colour. And this is not an isolated case,” she says.

This anti-racism campaign also ran in Groningen. “Even here,” explains Eli, “discrimination in university is also a problem. It is necessary to pay more attention to it and to take effective measures in improving the situation. We are trying to take some further steps, even if it’s just a little at a time.”

Respect one another

As the president of a group, she has to do more than just organising campaigns. She tries to seek common ground and properly handle differences within the group. Eli says that “it is so common to see that some people just do not stand by the same values as you, even if you are in the same organisation advocating the same thing.”

She takes the refugee campaign as an example, saying that most things went well. But there was one guy who disagreed with it, and thought that the refugees should stay in Lesbos. “I am so passionate about this issue, but people just do not understand.”

Although the conflict did not lead to any yelling, Eli still regards it as one of the greatest things she has learnt as part of Amnesty. “Not everyone sees the world in the same way as me – it sucks but it makes the world more interesting.”

Eli adds, “currently our organisation has roughly 100 members, but only eight to ten are Dutch people. Obviously, we are an international group, so it is more important to us to listen to each other, learn from each other, and respect one another.”

The one night stand

Let’s Talk about Periods

By Clémence Waller

“You seem pissed off, are you on your period?”

“Really, it shouldn’t be talked about in public, this is a private issue.”

NOPE. Sit down ladies and gentlemen, we need to set some things straight as this affects everyone, women and men.

Before I start, I want to say that I do understand that not all women have periods and that not everyone that has a period is a woman. I am writing this in mind of anyone who does have to go through periods, regardless of their gender.

Periods are messy: yes. Can they be painful? Sometimes, depends on the person. Are they optional? No! Is it “normal”? HELL YES! Is Period Poverty real? Yes! Should it be? No!

So What Is It All About?

Quick recap for those of you who have never heard of this natural phenomenon. Periods are when someone’s body expels blood from their uterus and out their vagina. This process allows the body to eliminate the old uterus lining, avoid infections and clean out the space for a fresh new set up to welcome an eventual baby.

Think of it as a monthly deep clean of the oven so you can put a fresh bun in it.

It is understandable why, at first, this topic may make some of us uncomfortable, both male and female. You are practically bleeding for 5-10 days without dying. That’s some Walking Dead shit right there!

It sounds scary: sometimes women who go through it, experience unpleasant emotional and physical changes because hormones are playing tag in their body. But it is a completely natural, healthy process and talking about it, educating both boys and girls about it, is the only way to break the taboo that affects half the population.

It’s not “dirty”, it’s not “sinful” or “disgusting”, it’s just a process you have to go through once a month.

A Matter of Dignity

In 2015 Christian Eckert, a French politician compared his razor and shaving cream to be equally important or vital to men’s dignity as period pads or tampons are to women. To paraphrase Sophia Aram, French comedian: between his opinion and toilet paper, toilet paper has more value.

If a man does not shave, his dignity is not affected. Men have a choice whether or not they want a beard, most women do not have a choice about whether or not to have a period. Aunt Flow is coming at some point during the month, you just need to be ready for her when she does.

Ladies, who has not asked another female at least once, if she had a pad or a tampon because you got caught off guard?  Who here has not gone into a public bathroom hoping she had enough change to pay for a pad? That fear of standing up and revealing that bright red stain on your butt that screams “I’M ON MY PERIOD! I’M SO ASHAMED AND DIRTY”, is very real and it’s time to do away with this once and for all.

Gentlemen, who has not been asked at least once by a close female relative or significant other if they could go to the store to get an emergency supply of tampons or pads? Why is it so embarrassing or “emasculating” to help out a woman you love who is in need? Tampons and period pads are no more embarrassing to buy than pants or shirts. You need clothes in order to go out and about in society and menstruating women need these products to do the same.

In 2016 France finally reduced the taxation on female hygienic products from 21% to 5,5% (the standard first necessities rate throughout most of Europe, barring a few exceptions such as Italy at 22%). Whilst this reduction is absolutely a great way forward, the cost of these necessities still adds up to a hefty monthly and yearly budget. There is still more that can be done, like having social security cover part of the cost. Scotland has already made a landmark decision and is making period pads and tampons free for students and low-income women; more countries should follow this example.

A Violation of Human Rights

In Western Europe we are “lucky” in certain ways that we can shout out about our periods or talk about them more or less openly, however that is not the case for everybody.  In December 2016 a young Nepalese girl died of poor ventilation in a hut she had been exiled to during her menstruation as part of the Chaupadi ritual. Women should not have to be put in physical danger just because they are experiencing a non-optional biological phenomenon.

In France, in schools of disadvantaged neighborhoods, girls find themselves unable to afford period pads and schools are having budgetary trouble providing them to girls. In the US, Medicaid, SNAP and WIC don’t cover the cost of hygiene products as they are deemed “luxuries”. I can promise policy makers that anyone who has to go through periods does not feel that glamorous or luxurious.

In the UK one in ten women between the ages of 14-21 cannot afford period products and girls find themselves skipping school for fear of staining their uniforms. At this point this becomes not only a health issue, but also an educational one.

An important female demographic to consider who are severely impacted by period poverty would be homeless women and incarcerated women. These members of our society are unable to receive regular income to pay for those expensive products and so are forced into a situation that not only compromises their dignity but also their health.  

In 2017, the British charity Shelter estimated that 68,000 women were sleeping rough on the streets, in emergency housing or shelters. In an address in the house of commons Paula Sherriff explained that the government funds homeless shelters to buy condoms and razors but not sanitary products.  They have to rely on charitable donations for those. Homeless women have said that to cope, they makeshift their own sanitary products by ripping up socks, clothes and even stuffing newspaper in their underwear. They sometimes overuse their sanitary products which can lead to dangerous diseases such as toxic shock syndrome.

Incarcerated girls and women face similar problems. In Arizona state, female detainees are allowed on 12 pads a month. Any person who has had heavy flow periods will know that 12 pads may not be enough. These women are paid 15 cents an hour and have to pay for extra pads via the commissary, which charges them full retail price. Detainees are often forced to come up with alternative solutions to sanitary products, have to barter amongst themselves or ‘free bleed’.  

A bill was proposed in February of this year to combat this and was decided by a panel of nine men. Not a single woman was on the judging committee. In the UK, women are often left to bleed in their cells and do not have access to water to wash their hands. With restrictions to their access to affordable sanitary care, female detainees are constantly humiliated and their dignity discarded.

As part of the western world, we often laud ourselves in being nations that respect human rights and hold human dignity to a high standard. Women and any person who has periods are included in the word ‘human’. Article 3 of the European convention of Human Rights provides that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.  This is an absolute right. In laymen’s terms, under no circumstances are any member nations of this convention allowed to breach this basic human right. By denying sanitary products to the women that cannot afford them, their human rights are being violated.

So What Can We Do?

Period Poverty needs to end. This is not asking for special treatment or considerations, this is asking for basic respect. Make period products affordable and accessible to all so that we can achieve our full individual potential and give back to society.

All in all: be cool, support women who are menstruating by supporting initiatives that make period products accessible and affordable, donate pads and tampons to local charities and go with the Flow.