Why you should care
For millions of women, their monthlies are stigmatizing, painful and isolating. And despite the rhetoric, you can’t just throw sanitary napkins at the problem.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
Ever since Eve, women have bled. But only lately has menstruation — and the propensity of poor women to do it, too — come to the attention of the international development community.
That’s right: The menses of the global sisterhood are now an “it” project for aid agencies, NGOs and social entrepreneurs. They’ve endowed the field with a technocratic name, “menstrual hygiene management,” and are on missions to distribute sanitary pads and working toilets, bring menstruation out of the shadows, or just find big new markets for their products. With an estimated 300 million women in India alone who don’t use pads, the potential for impact — and profits— is huge.
“The field is just exploding,” says Aunna Wilson, the American cofounder of Pasand, an organization that works in India to change ingrained, unsanitary methods of absorbing menstrual flow. Ruby Cup, a menstrual cup that originated in Denmark, launched a Toms-ish “buy one, give one” scheme, linking purchases in rich countries to donations in Kenya. There is a movement to make menstrual hygiene a human right. And just a few weeks ago, the world had its first Menstrual Hygiene Day, declared as such by the development sector known as WASH (short for water, sanitation and hygiene). The date was May 28 — 28 being the number of days in typical cycle.
All this attention to your Aunt Flo who is in town! For some of it you can thank Menstrual Man, the recent documentary about an Indian man’s quest to make affordable sanitary pads. But other, deeper factors are pushing menstrual-hygiene management to the fore, observers say. These include the rise of social entrepreneurship, emerging markets and the growing importance of the WASH sector. Having your period discreetly generally requires things like working toilets and garbage collection, and as more of the world’s poor move to cities, sanitation infrastructure is taking on more importance.
Lack of sanitation infrastructure is one reason poor women in poor countries don’t use disposables — but there are many others. Pads are often too expensive, and global manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson often find distributing products in isolated, rural areas too costly. Menstruation isn’t openly discussed, even in the United States, and in many cultures, taboos around it limit the mobility of menstruating women — sometimes treating them as outcasts. Advocates say such problems do all sorts of harm to women, from higher school dropout rates for girls to increased rates of cervical cancer.
But some worry that the menstrual-hygiene trend focuses too much on symptoms, rather than underlying causes. And the underlying cause, they say, is a subtle, systemic bias against women and their bodily processes. Even in the United States, scholars point out, feminine hygiene products are marketed with a view toward hiding menstruation — think of a tampon ad’s perennial star, a woman in white jeans — rather than acknowledging it as normal.
“By using a tampon or sanitary napkin you can pass as a non-bleeder,” says scholar Sharra Vostral. Her 2008 book, Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology, argues that such products are “technologies of passing.” They are liberating, kind of, but real liberation would be not having to pretend you’re not having you’re period.
Taboos around menstruation may not always be as nefarious as they sound on first blush, some argue. Barring a woman from preparing food during her period, for instance, might also serve to exempt her from an onerous chore at a time when she is tired and crampy. The ritual of seclusion during one’s menses may have originated in a belief that menstruating women have special powers.
And are cloth napkins vilified in the likes of Menstrual Man really so evil? They’re better for the environment than the disposable ones, which contribute to many tons of landfill waste a year, and cheap and reusable besides. Some women prefer cloth, according to Sinu Joseph, an activist and co-creator of an animated menstruation education film called Myrthi Speaks. What makes cloth unsanitary is the shame that can accompany washing and hanging them out to dry: women are often embarrassed to display their intimate laundry.
…Issues surrounding menstrual health go well beyond affordable products, or distribution by women.
“If we break the myth and taboos around menstruation, then having a menstrual cloth out there shouldn’t shock anybody,” says Ameet Mehta, co-founder of Azadi, which makes and distributes affordable pads to women in India. (Azadi means “freedom” in Urdu.) Periods don’t get the same respect as other bodily processes, such as defecation. Everyone poops. Only women bleed.
Mehta and Azadi’s other founder, also a man, originally figured that inexpensive pads distributed by women would solve the area’s menstrual-hygiene issues. Instead, they realized — and quickly — that issues surrounding menstrual health go well beyond affordable products, or distribution by women. “We’ve moved much beyond the pad itself,” says Mehta. Azadi is now trying to raise awareness around menstruation, including setting up a hotline with a toll-free number that girls and women can call with questions, and starting a “report card” to rate schools according to how well they accommodate girls.
Which is all to say, we suppose, that menstrual health issues are complicated, deep and more universal than we might think. You can’t just throw sanitary pads at ’em.