Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Culture, menstrual narratives, and the messy politics of reproductive freedom

May 23rd, 2015 by Laura Wershler

Two workshops explore the menstrual health/awareness and reproductive justice connection on Saturday, June 6th at  at the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at The Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, June 4-6, 2015, Suffolk University, Boston.

POLITICS IS A MESSY BUSINESS: Menstrual Health, Reproductive Health Advocacy, Human Rights and Justice
Sharon L. Powell, Artist and Educator, S L Powell Public Affairs Services

Original image by Sharon L. Powell

Menstruation is part of the spectrum of reproductive health. Menstruation and menstrual cycle discourse takes up space as marker in the health and identity of female bodied individuals as well as in constructions of fertility. As such, it is on a reproductive health advocacy agenda. Menstrual health and menstrual health education are cornerstones of a reproductive health advocacy framework. Human rights and social justice movements concerned with self determination, health, human dignity, privacy, and bodily integrity, should pay political attention to menstrual health’s crucial and complicated place in an interdependent web of reproductive health concerns.

Social and chemical control of fertility is specifically connected to the hormones associated with the menstrual cycle. Menstrual shame. Hysteria. Sexualization. Contraceptive and other reproductive technologies. How does one truly consent to the use of reproductive innovations like hormonal birth control if they do not understand the hormonal patterns they are born with or acquire? Reproductive justice groups and reproductive health advocates must look at issues of self determination with an intersectional lens, acknowledging female bodied individuals’s multiplicity. It is important to explore and create opportunities for female bodied individuals to learn more about their bodies, not just lobby for abstract concepts of reproductive freedom.

Twenty years ago, I presented a paper at the Society’s conference in Montreal, Canada called “Better Dead Than Pregnant: Trends in Contraception – A Case for Menstruation Education.” Connecting my critiques of trends in non-user/”woman” controlled methods of contraception with myths of inconvenience regarding menstruation and convenience regarding methods of contraception, I made connections to the messy politics of reproductive freedom, the differences in the experiences for women of color, women with disabilities, and poor women with this focus on menstruation and the menstrual cycle. My contention that women from these communities were “better dead than pregnant” was picked up by other reproductive rights activists (such as Andrea Smith in her book Conquest). Subsequently, Malcolm Gladwell’s article, “John Rock’s Error, ” detailed how a myth of inconvenience regarding menstruation may have played a role in the development of the oral contraceptive pill.

Our Bodies, Our Stories: Celebrating the Menstrual Narratives of Womanhood
Deborah Dauda, LEPA & Kirthi Jayakumar, Red Elephant Fund

This workshop will look at culture and menstruation by sharing stories and testimonies of women from all over the world and the impact of open conversations in creating comfortable spaces for women to celebrate their womanhood through menstruation. In addition, we will welcome participants to share their own testimonies and stories, along with a session on simple “what-if” scenarios to encourage community conduct and resource sharing.

Media Release and Registration for the SMCR Boston Conference on Menstrual Health and Reproductive Justice: Human Rights Across the Lifespan.

Young women’s experiences with cancer-related infertility, and HPV vaccine uptake and avoidance in Eastern Europe

May 21st, 2015 by Laura Wershler

This session will explore Cancer and Menstruation at the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at The Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, June 4-6, 2015, Suffolk University, Boston.

The Significance of Menstrual Flow for Young Women with Cancer-Related Infertility
Kathryn Nattress, Centre for Health Research, University of Western Sydney

Although the dominant menstrual discourse is one of pain, mess and unpredictability, interviews with 20 young women who were diagnosed with cancer in childhood and adolescence suggest the possibility of alternative discourses. Five themes were identified:

1) A mark of womanhood: “People would talk about puberty or periods like it’s a foregone conclusion that everybody has them. So I would feel a little like I was orbiting and slightly outside of other women.”

2) Connection or disconnection: “People would talk about their periods and what a pain they were. I loved it because it made me feel more like a woman.” For others their differing experience led to disconnection.

3) Menstruation as a signifier of fertility: “I told everyone when I got my period back, I was so excited.”

4) Considering menstruation as abnormal: “My periods are very odd…It was like a tap, it just did not turn off.”

5) Maintaining a natural cycle: “Here I am, trying to do the natural fertility, and not be on the contraceptive pill, and really do everything to have a good cycle, and keep my hormones balanced.”

These young women strongly resisted contemporary, dominant patriarchal discourses and instead accommodated historical, matriarchal discourses where menstruation is seen as a powerful and sacred symbol of life and fertility. Their experiences provide greater understanding of the significance of menstruation for women with cancer-related infertility and allow alternative discourses to be explored.

Young women’s constructions of their post-cancer fertility
Amy Dryden, Centre for Health Research, University of Western Sydney

Young women diagnosed with cancer often face compromised fertility as a result of their treatment. However, little is known about young women’s constructions and experiences of their fertility post-cancer, or their interactions with healthcare professionals in discussing fertility concerns.

Semi-structured one-to-one interviews were conducted with 8 women aged 18-26 across a variety of cancer types including breast and brain tumours, leukaemia, lymphoma and sarcoma. Foucaultian Discourse Analysis identified three subject positions associated with fertility concerns: Inadequate woman: Accepting the motherhood mandate; Adequate woman: Resisting the motherhood mandate; and Survival of the fittest: Woman as genetically defective. Implications for subjectivity included feelings of inadequacy, fear and devastation; feeling undesirable to romantic partners due to compromised fertility; and feelings of guilt and worry about passing on cancer-positive genes. For the majority of participants, motherhood was constructed as an essential component of what they wanted to accomplish in their lives. Alternative pathways to motherhood (i.e adoption, egg donation) were constructed favourably by the majority of participants, although some constructed these options as inferior to biological motherhood.

Overall results suggest that issues surrounding fertility were important to this group of cancer survivors, and that compromised fertility can negatively impact on the subjectivity of young women with cancer. As such, the results reinforce the importance of the provision of information about fertility by healthcare professionals amongst a demographic who remain underserved in the area of reproductive health.

Constructing the HPV vaccine in the context of Eastern Europe
Irina Todorova, Northeastern University & Health Psychology Research Center, Sofia, Bulgaria 

An image about the HPV vaccine circulating in Bulgaria. The text reads “Attention: poisonous vaccine!”

This research paper explores the relevance of local context for understanding meanings, discourses and disparities related to uptake and avoidance of a vaccine for the prevention of Human Papilloma virus (HPV) transmission, associated with cervical and other cancers, in Bulgaria and Romania.

Cervical cancer is one of the leading causes of death for women worldwide, and differences between and within country disparities are striking. Instead of falling, as in many other countries of Eastern and most countries of Western Europe, cervical cancer morbidity and mortality rates in Bulgaria and Romania have been rising. The vaccine embodies an array of personal and cultural meanings and discourses, including those of responsibility, control, morality, health rights, and gender. It also represents multiple interests of many actors, whose attitudes vary depending on local meanings of sexuality, religious beliefs, stigma, their experiences and trust in the health care system.

Data was collected through semi-structured interviews with women, health-care providers and key informants, as well as focus groups with parents, and analyzed thematically. The paper will share dimensions of women’s narratives related to personal experiences, cultural constructions of gender, and the relevant structural and policy contexts in which vaccination behaviors are constituted. The discussion will address the relevance of history, healthcare policy and gendered attitudes in Bulgaria and Romania for the constitution of preventive attitudes and behaviors, and critically reflect on what a consideration of local meanings of medical interventions means for equitable health promotion.

Menstrual Hygiene, Human Rights, and Gender Equality – A Focus on the Global South

May 18th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

Scholars and practitioners from the fields of human rights and water and sanitation will discuss menstrual hygiene from the perspective of gender equality on June 4th at the  21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at The Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, June 4-6, 2015, Suffolk University, Boston.

Human Rights in the Private Sphere: Menstrual Hygiene as a Priority for Gender Equality and Human Dignity
Inga Winkler, Scholar-in-residence, Center for Human Rights & Global Justice, NYU School of Law 

In many countries, menstruation is shrouded in taboo and secrecy. Removing the taboos and ensuring better access to menstrual hygiene is essential for achieving gender equality and realizing human rights. The presentation seeks to explore human rights obligations to create an enabling environment for women and girls to practice adequate menstrual hygiene. It discusses various strategies including awareness-raising and breaking taboos, promoting good hygiene, and embedding menstrual hygiene in policies and programs by using examples from different country contexts. With a topic as personal and culturally specific as menstruation, incorporating women’s and girls’ views and preferences into programs and policies cannot be overestimated.

Poor menstrual hygiene, stigmatization, or cultural, social or religious practices that limit menstruating women’s and girls’ capacity to work, to get an education, or to engage in society must be eradicated. Considering menstruation as a fact of life and integrating this view at all levels will contribute to enabling women and girls to manage their menstruation adequately, without shame and embarrassment—with dignity.

Investigate and Expose: Challenges in Building an Evidence Base around Menstrual Hygiene as a Human Rights Issue
Amanda Klasing, Researcher, Human Rights Watch

Menstrual hygiene has emerged recently as a human rights issue, but this recognition alone does not mean that human rights practitioners will take up the issue. One barrier is the perceived or real limitations in their methodology.

This paper considers how human rights fact-finding methods may not readily lend themselves to building the evidence base for menstrual hygiene as a human rights concern. It will explore examples of how, despite challenges, menstrual hygiene concerns can be exposed within the context of broader investigations and it will address how practitioners can more deliberately incorporate menstrual hygiene in their investigations.

An important first step is for researchers to recognize the impact of menstrual hygiene on a broad array of women’s and girls’ human rights. Next, researchers should consider how best to expose this in the course of their research. Finally, researchers should consider how to include menstrual hygiene in the recommendations it makes to governments and other duty bearers.

Menstrual Hygiene Management in Schools: Meeting Girls’ Rights and Needs in Zambia
Sarah Fry, Hygiene and School WASH Advisor, USAID WASHplus Project

Image by Sarah Fry

Zambia’s schools fall short of acceptable standards and ratios for access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation. The ratio of girls to toilet can be as high as 200:1. These shortfalls are believed to be factor in the high rate of school drop-out among girls, many of whom do not even finish primary school. As in other low-income contexts, dropout rates for girls in Zambia appear to increase after puberty. Menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is burdened with cultural taboo and myths. Girls are still excluded from school for as long as one month at their first menses.

USAID/SPLASH in Zambia address girls’ right to education by removing barriers to menstrual hygiene management in schools. SPLASH and the Ministry of Education research cultural norms, improve girl-friendly facilities and access to menstrual products, break taboos, and integrate MHM in the education system through water, sanitation and hygiene in schools

Menstruation is still a sensitive topic, but experience in Zambia has shown that taboos can break down rapidly and MHM can become a normal part of discourse around girls’ rights at local and policy levels.

 

Media Release and Registration for the SMCR Boston Conference.

 

Menstrual education and hygiene management initiatives seek collaborators

May 15th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

 Two experiential workshops on Friday, June 5th, invite participants to collaborate in menstrual health initiatives at the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at The Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, June 4-6, 2015, Suffolk University, Boston. With one in the morning and one in the afternoon, you can take in both!

Menstruation Matters: Period! – A Public Education Campaign Whose Time Has Not Yet Come
Presenters:
Heather Guidone – Director, Center for Endometriosis Care; Medical Writer; Women’s Health Educator
Diana Karczmarczyk, PhD – Adjunct Professor, George Mason University and Senior Analyst, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials
Evelina Sterling, PhD—Visiting Professor, Kennesaw State University and Public Health Consultant, Southern Research and Evaluation Institute
Peggy Stubbs, PhD— Professor, Chatham University

How might menstrual arts and crafts be included in menstrual cycle education campaigns?
Photo by Laura Wershler

 

 

 

As menstrual cycle educators and advocates, we know all too well the frustrations and inadequacies related to menstrual cycle education targeting the general public. This hands-on workshop provides participants the opportunity to contribute to designing effective public health education messaging grounded in health education theory and strategies which address the importance of menstruation to girls’s and women’s health and well-being.

Building Better Solutions for Monitoring and Evaluation in Menstrual Hygiene Management
Presenters from Pasand (USA), @PasandTeam, Pasand on Facebook:
Rebecca Scharfstein, Co-Founder and Executive Director
Ashley Eberhart, Co-Founder and Director of Marketing
Allison Behringer, Director of Partnerships
Lacy Clark, Monitoring & Evaluation Project Lead, MBA Intern

According to often-cited data, 88% of women do not have access to sanitary protection (instead using “cloth, husks, mud, and ash”), and 23% percent of girls drop out of school upon menarche. In the field, however, questions come to mind, such as: “Who are these women using rags because we can’t find them!” While shocking statistics about menstrual hygiene management have been used successfully in recent years to generate an unprecedented level of interest in the topic, how can we avoid inflammatory statements, recognize geographical and socioeconomic nuances, and develop quantitative rigor in a relatively new field?

In this workshop, participants will discuss challenges in monitoring and evaluation in the menstrual hygiene management sector through an interactive human-centered design workshop approach. We will use Pasand, a social venture that partners with schools and NGOs in India to teach women’s health and provide access to affordable sanitary protection, as a case study and present four challenges the organization faces with respect to data collection.

Participants will be divided into facilitated “challenge teams,” each assigned with the task of collaboratively identifying solution(s) to one of the challenges presented. At the end of the session, groups will share their solutions, and individuals will come away with a deeper understanding of effective monitoring and evaluation in the sector, as well as new ideas that can be implemented in their own work.

In the days following the conference, Pasand will compile a summary of the ideas and major themes coming out of the workshop and send to participants so that they can take the results back to their own organizations, expanding the reach beyond the walls of the workshop.

Media Release and Registration for the SMCR Boston Conference on Menstrual Health and Reproductive Justice: Human Rights Across the Lifespan. 

Full-Spectrum Doula Support and Reproductive Justice

May 2nd, 2015 by Laura Wershler

 Emma O’Brien and Sarah Whedon will present the workshop Full-Spectrum Doula Support at the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at The Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, June 4-6, 2015, Suffolk University, Boston

Learn more about the Boston Doula Project.

The cohort of abortion doulas who participated in the Boston Doula Project’s January 2015 training.

In recent years the full-spectrum doula movement has arisen as an intervention in reproductive health provision in general and abortion provision specifically. Full-spectrum doulas provide free, non-judgmental, and empowering support for people undergoing reproductive experiences. In this one-hour workshop, members of the Boston Doula Project will discuss how full-spectrum doulas engage with the reproductive justice movement; prioritize the voices of marginalized people, including but not limited to people of color and queer, trans*, and gender-nonconforming people; destigmatize abortion by locating it on the reproductive lifecourse; and promote body literacy and empowerment for everybody to be their own best advocate.

Follow the Boston Doula Project on Facebook and Twitter.

Media Release and Registration for the SMCR Boston Conference.

Period Positives, Menstrual Hygiene Management, and The Feminist Issue of Our Times

May 1st, 2015 by Laura Wershler

An international panel will lead a discussion at the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at The Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, June 4-6, 2015, Suffolk University, Boston on Menstrual Hygiene Management Campaigns & Menstrual Activists: What can we learn from each other?


1. Stiff Lower Lips: Challenging and changing British attitudes to menstruation
Presenter: Chella Quint,The #PeriodPositive Project, Sheffield, UK

Chella Quint offers at least 28 ways to disrupt narratives of menstrual shame globally and locally by recounting her #PeriodPositive methods: using comedy, activism, research, education, and, more recently, as part of a wider discourse around improved sex and relationships education, at grassroots, local school board and national policy levels. She developed #PeriodPositive to counteract the mainly negative public discourse. She accepts that people both love and hate periods, but tries to unpick how big an influence the media plays in these attitudes. She aims for ‘period neutral’, using a positive approach.

@chellaquint  #periodpositive

2. The Feminist Issue of Our Time: The role of menstruation in achieving better reproductive health for women worldwide
Presenter: Dr. Emily Wilson-Smith, Irise International, University of Sheffield—School of Health and Related Research, Kampala International University 

Women’s reproductive health begins with their experience of menstruation, influencing their health-seeking behaviors for life. With the lifetime risk of maternal death over 200 times greater in poor countries compared with Western Europe and North America, an over-romanticized view of a women’s natural state is damaging in this context. Wilson-Smith believes that the fate of the 800 women who die every day during childbirth from preventable causes is the feminist issue of our age. All who aspire to advance women’s rights need to engage in a meaningful way with the realities these women live, their struggles to access healthcare and information, control their fertility and survive childbirth. We may have to leave some appealing myths about the female body behind if we wish to extend the freedoms that many women in the west currently enjoy to women around the world.
@irise_int

 3. Menstrual Hygiene Day – Uniting Partners
Presenter: Danielle Keiser, WASH United, Berlin, Germany 

In addition to deeply enshrined socio-cultural taboos about menstruation, the ability to hygienically manage menstruation is a major struggle in many parts of developing countries. This is largely due to the lack of access or limited affordability of hygienic products and/or the lack of private and clean facilities with water, soap and a safe place to dispose of menstrual waste. Such an environment prevents girls and women from being able to practice ‘healthy’ habits around menstruation, have ‘positive’ attitudes about menstruation or lead ‘normal’ lives on menstruating days.

Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28) is an initiative with a vision to ensure that all girls and women, wherever they are, can hygienically manage their menstruation – in privacy, safety and with dignity. Initiated by WASH United, Menstrual Hygiene Day is a global and open platform that unites the many different actors and sectors by coordinating and strengthening efforts to make this vision a reality. Since 2013, over 200 organisations worldwide have joined the partner network.

@WASHUnited

4. Experiences from India—Reclaiming a positive & celebratory outlook towards menstruation
Presenter: Sinu Joseph, Mythri Speaks

In India, practices around menstruation, such as women taking time off during their period, eating and drinking from separate vessels, and not visiting religious places or ceremonies during menstruation, are rooted in the cultural context. It is nearly impossible to talk about menstruation in India without understanding the traditional cultural practices. Throughout Joseph’s journey of discovery, the positive celebratory attitude of early religious texts towards the experience of menstruation has been enlightening. Ancient societies have much untapped wisdom that could benefit menstruators and inform our views today.

Media Release and Registration for the SMCR Boston Conference.

Sustainable Cycles: Cross Country Activism and Menstrual Health Education on Bicycles

April 24th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

Presenters Sarah Wilson, Ruby Gertz, Rosie Sheb’a, Rachel Horn, Olive Mugalian and Rachel Saudek will present the workshop Sustainable Cycles: Cross Country Activism and Education on Bicycles, at the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at The Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, June 4-6, 2015, Suffolk University Boston, USA.

Read more about their journey in Biking 2000 Miles to Talk Period published by Jamaica Plain News.

In March of 2015 seven women from three different countries are biking across America for one reason: because they are passionately period positive. The purpose of Sustainable Cycles is to catalyze a grassroots, person-to-person revolution away from single-use, disposable menstrual products to reusable sustainable options. We want as many women to make the switch as possible and for users to become advocates—“spokeswomen” – in their communities. We see our work as a feminist, social and environmental justice project.

Sustainable Cycles was started in 2011 by Sarah Konner and Toni Craige, who biked down the West Coast meeting with groups of women to discuss the cultural taboos of menstruation and pass around a show-and-tell kit of alternatives to single-use pads and tampons. The project has since gained momentum, making the 2015 tour the third and largest trip. This year the trip will be taking three simultaneous routes: through middle America via San Francisco, Southern America via San Diego and from Florida up the Eastern Coast. The project has been supported by multiple re-usable companies including Diva Cup, Ruby Cup, Party in My Pants, Glad Rags, Lunette and My Own Cup.

As the culmination of our 2015 tour, it is a privilege to present our travels with other menstrual enthusiasts at the 2015 SMCR conference. We will be presenting our project in three parts. Firstly, reminding and educating about the presence and importance of alternative menstrual products. We will then be sharing the details, triumphs, and difficulties of holding these workshops with women across America. This will include pictures from our journey, a report of current attitudes about menstruation and alternative products and our personal growth during our journey. Lastly, we will be discussing ways that women can access their own inner activist and combine their passions to make a difference in the world. We are thrilled to be sharing our passion and products with women across America and to share our story at the upcoming conference.

Follow Sustainable Cycles on Twitter @bikeperiod and on Facebook 

Media Release for the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at The Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, June 4-6, 2015, Suffolk University Boston, USA

Register here for the Boston Conference.

Taxing the Period

April 6th, 2015 by David Linton

Photo courtesy Canadian Menstruators

It seems that Canadian menstrual activists are way out ahead of those in the US with a drive to eliminate sales taxes on menstrual products.  I understand that this issue has come up previously at the Provincial level in Manitoba and British Columbia, but this is a nation-wide drive.

The topic of menstruation is so delicate in the US that it’s unlikely that any party or mainstream candidate would sign on to support a bill to eliminate menstrual sales taxes at any level.  It would surely invite ridicule and smarmy commentary from the uptight media pundits and politicians who run rampant over anything having to do with women’s health, especially when it comes to the menstrual cycle.

Yet it’s surprising that, to the best of my knowledge, there has never been a law suit filed on the basis of gender discrimination against state and local taxation of menstrual products since they are a necessity used almost exclusively by women.

Perhaps it’s time for more activists in the US and elsewhere to pick up on the lead of the Canadian feminists and raise a fist clutching a tampon, pad, or cup (whichever one prefers) and demand the elimination of this discriminatory levy.  Readers are invited to propose appropriate slogans.  And perhaps in Boston in June we could stage a new version of the revolution’s tea party.  Boston harbor afloat with tampons!  Now there’s an image sure to get coverage.

Period Revolution — How Period Apps are Changing Women’s Health

March 13th, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Dr. Lara Briden

My new book Period Repair Manual begins with some warm words about Period Apps. I’m talking about the smart phone applications that let us tap in data about our period start date, bleed duration, and symptoms such as spotting, breast tenderness, and mood.

Of course we could always do the same thing with old-fashioned pen and paper, but period apps are different somehow. They’re right there in our bags. They’re often on our hand. That makes it so easy to check in with our body’s information on a daily basis. That makes it fun to track periods—almost like a game.

I love period apps because they have made periods seem less threatening. They have made periods seem normal (which of course they are). As a naturopathic doctor working with period health for the last twenty years, I perceive that period apps are part of something bigger now in women’s health. More and more women are talking openly about their periods, which is exciting. Even more exciting is the fact that more and more women are saying Yes to their own natural cycles, and No to the birth control pill.

Women are saying No to the pill because they’re finally starting to understand that pill-withdrawal bleeds are not real periods. They want real periods, and they’re ready to have a closer look at what those periods are actually doing. How better to have that closer look than with a period app?

Period apps help women to see how their periods currently are. They also help women to track the way their periods improve over time with natural treatment such diet, supplements, and herbs.

I have one big concern about period apps, and that’s the way they can confuse women about ovulation. I know, because I’ve had these conversations with some of my patients. Their phone tells them that they ovulate on a certain day, and they believe it. Why wouldn’t they believe it? It’s data from a high-tech device. I explain that their phone can only guess at ovulation based on the timing of their last period. It cannot truly know when they ovulated or even if they ovulated at all (it’s possible to have bleeds without ovulating). I teach patients to learn to know their ovulation. I teach them to look for the physical signs of ovulation such as fertile mucus, cervix position, and a shift in basal body temperature. They can enter that data into their period app, and then will they have a truly useful technology.

Periods apps are not perfect, but from my perspective, they’re a step in the right direction. They’re an important tool for body literacy and period health.

Lara Briden is a naturopathic doctor with nearly twenty years experience in women’s health. She is also the author of Period Repair Manual.
Read her blog and learn more at http://www.larabriden.com/.

Changing Attitudes on Menstruation in Australia

February 10th, 2015 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Rosie Sheb’a

Many questions have come up recently about why my focus is on Australia, when there are so many places that appear “worse off” than we are that I could be focussing my attention on. You may have seen the recent media coverage (Huffpost, Upworthy and the likes) about the great stuff happening with menstrual cups in Africa. These posts get so much attention not only because they are in popular media, but because they give the reader that “feel good” sensation that there are people doing worse than them, and that someone is out there helping them. However, I feel that here in Australia, in the area of menstruation and women’s knowledge of our own bodies, we are actually doing pretty abysmally.

Most women I speak to (who haven’t used a cup) don’t even know what their cervix is, let alone how to find it. Many Australian women don’t know that if they tense their body in fear, or lie really still, it makes cramping worse. Women haven’t been told that opening up the pelvis, and moving around while breathing deeply and slowly out is a really good way to release period pain. Until I started using and researching menstrual cups, I didn’t realise myself just how amazing periods can be, and how important it is to understand how our bodies work. One of the biggest barriers I have come across with women using menstrual cups, is their fears of what can happen. “What if it gets lost?” The impossibility of this due to the vagina having an end is not understood. Many Australian women don’t realise their vagina has muscles that they can use to push things out with.

We have an epidemic in Australia. It is the fear of the uterus, vagina and their inner workings. We treat it with The Pill. We treat it with Nurofen, Paracetamol, and Codeine. We treat it with Implanon, white bleached tampons and pads, and most of all – we treat it with silence. We leave the room, or tell our friends to keep their voices down if they dare speak about it in a public place. We shield our children from the topic, and we make up names to cover up the shame of speaking about something that without it, none of us would be here. Europe is years ahead with “period positive” talk and action, so is Canada, America is catching up, and even in parts of Africa the women know more about their bodies than we do. It’s time Australia woke up too.

This is my mission with Sustainable Menstruation Australia. To open the conversation about menstruation. To share knowledge, and learn from our friends, colleagues, families and lovers. To move from a culture of fear, shame and taboo, to one of celebration for the beautiful and powerful ability we have as human beings who menstruate. Menstruation is not just about reproduction. When we get in touch with our cycles, it becomes a powerful tool to use in our lives every day. We know when we are likely to be feeling certain ways due to the cocktail of hormones (or lack thereof) coursing through our veins. We learn that certain times of our cycle are going to be really awesome for networking, making connections and growing projects and plans. Other times are going to be great for self-reflection, reassessing our lives and taking good care of ourselves. Our cycles give us a brilliant road map to help our lives. And when we release the fears and tensions associated with menstruation, the pain starts to ease. We can participate in swimming, sports, work and other areas of our lives that felt impossible. Pain, fear, shame, and the copious amounts of waste through disposable products and menstruation are not Sustainable. Not for ourselves, our communities or our planet.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. That light is in the form laughter, liberation and learning. Our bodies can be celebrated, not feared. We can use products that don’t pollute our planet or make a large dent in our budget. We can love our bodies, relax into them and honour our cycles. We can use this knowledge to become more powerful and in control of our lives. There is a revolution afoot, and Australia is getting on board. It’s learning to love our bodies again. Our cycles. Our selves. Our planet. Let’s celebrate.

“Menstrual Hygiene” Explored: Capturing the the Wider Context

December 9th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

This summer, I bought a new camera. I needed it to snap pictures during a research trip to India where I explored diverse approaches to what’s called in the development sector, Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM). I chose a sleek, high tech device with a powerful, intuitive zoom.

Photo by author

In Bangalore, I captured the sweet intimacy of two schoolgirls as they watched the menstrual health animated video “Mythri” at a government school. In Tamil Nadu, I used my zoom for close shots of skilled women tailors sewing brightly colored cloth menstrual pads for the social business, Eco Femme.

Photo by author

In South Delhi, I used my zoom to preserve the mounds of cloth painstakingly repurposed as low cost menstrual pads at NGO Goonj.

But here’s the problem. These close up shots may please the eye, but they leave out the context that surrounds and shapes each photo’s subject. And what exists outside the frame is at least as important as what is inside. That’s hardly a revelation, I realize, but when it comes to doing Menstrual Hygiene Management work, in an effort to find solutions, the “big picture”—both literally and figuratively—sometimes gets obscured.

Photo by author

For example, when I snapped the picture of the mound of menstrual pads pictured here, I focused on a product, a simple product, that could truly improve the quality of someone’s life. But when I trained my attention on the product, what did I miss?

In short, a wider angle lens reveals the context of menstrual product access—a complicated web of many intersecting issues: infrastructural deficits (safe, secure, and clean latrines and sites for disposal), access to resources (like soap and water), gender norms, and menstrual restrictions rooted in culture or religion.

Imagine that one of brightly colored packages of menstrual pads ends up in the hands of a 15 year old girl. I will call her Madhavi.

Madhavi is delighted to have a dedicated set of her very own clean rags to absorb her flow.

Goonj worker with pads ready for distribution and sale
Photo by author

But does she have access to clean water and soap to wash them?

Does she have family support to dry her rags on the clothesline, in direct sunlight, even though her brothers, uncles, and neighbors will be able to see them?

Does she have a safe, secure place at school to change her rags?

Does she have someone to turn to when she has a question about her menstrual cycle?

These questions are important because they point to what gets in the way of effective and sustainable MHM. My own review of the emerging empirical literature on MHM revealed that the top three impediments to school girls’ positive and healthy menstrual experiences are 1) inadequate facilities 2) inadequate knowledge and 3) fear of disclosure, especially to boys. I want to focus on this last one for a moment by widening the frame a bit more.

Menstrual Hygiene Management is part of a complex and enduring project of loosening the social control of women’s bodies, of working to move embodiment, more generally, from object to subject status—something absolutely foundational to taking on a host of other urgent issues; from human trafficking to eating disorders to sexual assault.

As we know throughout the West, menstrual taboos do not disappear as we upgrade our menstrual care. Without the heavy lifting of menstrual normalization, any menstrual care practice will make a minimal impact.

Thus, menstrual activism must always incorporate an analysis of how gender norms maintain the menstrual status quo. And it must engage the potential of men and boys as allies, not enemies. That’s a tall order that cuts to the very core of gender socialization. But if we don’t take this on, no product in the world will be enough.

Anyone with a camera knows that framing a picture is a choice. Am I suggesting that we should never use the zoom, that we should forgo the rich and textured details possible when we tighten the shot? Of course not, as focus is crucial to our understanding. But when we do aim our figurative cameras and shoot, let’s not forget what lies outside the visual frame. Let’s not forget what else must change for the pad to be a truly sustainable solution.

With this in mind, I turn back to Madhavi and her new pads. Inevitably, even with them, one day soon, someone will know she is menstruating.

Will she be shamed? Will she be supported?

The answer lies in how we frame the picture.

This blog post appears on Girls Globe as part of a series of invited posts organized by Irise Interational.

Winning the Menstrual Battle in the Abortion War

October 15th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

Last week, Loretta Ross, the pioneering women’s health activist, came to Boston for a public lecture.  Ross will keynote at our upcoming “Menstrual Health and Reproductive Justice: Human Rights Across the Lifespan” (What? You didn’t hear?). Hearing her speak tripled my excitement for her keynote in June. I, a serious fangirl, listened intently as she narrated a personal history of the women’s health movement and offered a clear-eyed, no nonsense way forward. This lady knows some stuff! If you don’t know Ross, you should. For one, she was one of 12 women who developed the globetrotting concept of “Reproductive Justice”—which intersects social justice and reproductive rights, or as Ross, puts it, “brings Human Rights home by looking at the totality of women’s lives.”

Though I generally resist militarized language, I also know that the persistent assault on abortion rights is nothing short of a war against women. Many of us, caught up in our own fisticuffs on neighboring battlegrounds (for affordable better birth control, against pinkwashing, for comprehensive sexuality education, for transgender health care), may not realize how our struggles are, indeed, united. We are all fighting for bodily autonomy, after all. Ross’ remarks made clear to me how our battles are united and that we will NOT win any of them if we don’t manage to see these connections.

Let’s look at how the abortion issue and menstrual health are linked.

To begin, thinking about abortion in a REPRODUCTIVE JUSTICE framework allows us to address what Ross calls the “Oh My God!” Reactions many women face when they think they might be pregnant:

1) OMG! I am in an abusive relationship. What do I tell my partner? Will I be safe?

2) OMG! I am 16. What will my family say?

3) OMG! I am a college student. Can I finish school?

4) OMG! I have no health insurance? How do I pay for this?

When we pay attention to the OMG reactions, we acknowledge the reality of women’s lives—and the complicated context that shapes reproductive decision making. And as we consider that context, we have to tune into the following:

• Safe abortion is not enough. It must ALSO be safe to TALK about abortion.

• We need ‘kitchen table conversations’ about women taking reproductive knowledge back into our own hands. (And my favorite line of the night: “Why are we ceding the responsibility of our bodies to a bunch of assholes. We built a women’s health movement. Let’s act like it.”)

• We absolutely must listen to Women of Color and the issues that matter to them (e.g voting rights, immigrant rights).

The menstrual connections are evident here. Do you see them, too? Improving menstrual health through menstrual literacy for health care workers and menstruators alike is fundamental to winning this war.

I submit the following:

FIRST: Breaking Silence. Yup. Challenging menstrual shame, silence and secrecy is JOB ONE for many of us. We know that our cultural allergy to making mensruation audible and visible (to quote filmmaker Giovanna Chesler) is at the root of menstrual ILLiteracy which leads to poor reproductive health. Imagine if menstruators felt supported to speak up when they had questions about their cycles—from pre menarche (what does a period feel like?) through menopause (is this heavy bleeding normal?).

SECOND: Taking our health care into our own hands. Do It Yourself. DIY has been foundational to the women’s health movement since its genesis. DIY vaginal exams. DIY menstrual extraction. Menstrual activists, at least since the 70s, have been promoting DIY menstrual care as a way to take control BACK from the body shaming FemCare industry while doing our part to protect the planet.

THIRD: Paying attention to Women of Color in everything we do. When it comes to ANY reproductive health issue, race matters. White supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy have had disastrous effects on women of color’s lives (sterilization abuse, higher mortality and morbidity for heart disease lung and breast cancers, and HIV/AIDS are just a few examples).

Using a critical race lens on menstrual and ovulatory health sharpens our focus and begs important questions, such as:

Why do African American girls reach puberty 6 months earlier than European-American girls?

How do norms of sexual respectability serve to discourage women of color from challenging the menstrual status quo?

Making menstruation matter fortifies the fight. When we situate menstrual health in a reproductive justice framework, we take our place fighting alongside others straining toward embodied autonomy. We fight for choices of all kinds when we fight together. As Ross asked at the end of her talk, “Can we be brave together and do this?”

Can we?

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.