Dr. Lata Narayanaswamy, Honourary Research Fellow at SIID and an Advisory Board Member of Irise International.
This article was originally posted on Girl’s Globe for Global Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28th). Join the conversation on Twitter all month long using #MenstruationMatters.
Since joining Irise International as an adviser, I have spent a lot of time thinking about pads, pantyliners and tampons. Whilst I welcome my ‘monthlies’ as a sign that my plumbing is in order (always a good thing), I have never given much thought to the equipment or the infrastructure that supports my mobility during my period as I navigate those ebbs and flows as part of my everyday. But Irise, a health and education NGO inspired by the reality of women and girls prevented from going to school, going to work or participating in their social lives due to a lack of access to pads and tampons, has highlighted what seems to me both an exceedingly obvious but also frequently intractable problem. Obvious, because of course modern menstrual hygiene management aids, such as pads and tampons, are not likely to be available in rural and poorer areas where daily life is characterised by a lack of access to basic sanitation including clean water and waste removal. Intractable because how can we begin to address this need if, as is the case even in the supposedly more ‘enlightened’ West, we can barely bring ourselves to even talk about it?
So let’s talk about it. My story begins at the ripe old age of 11, when I got my period. In my family, that meant that I was now considered ‘unclean’ or polluted. This meant I couldn’t enter the kitchen or prayer room, couldn’t touch any food or clothing or bedding – rather, my mother and sister had to fetch anything I needed for me. Thankfully I had access to pads and could therefore go to school, but to ensure that I didn’t starve when I got home, my mother (who undertook paid work outside the home) would leave me a snack outside the kitchen. My mother also had clever ways around our polluting nature when menstruating – she asserted that the ‘polluting’ quality couldn’t travel through inanimate objects, so sometimes I had the excitement of getting my own clothes out of my cupboard using a stick or a comb. On the fourth day after my period had started, I would undergo a ritual cleansing where I washed all the clothes and bedding I had ‘polluted’ for the previous three days, and then I would wash myself thoroughly, including my hair. The experience of being deemed ‘untouchable’ added to the sense of exclusion, shame and embarrassment that accompanied the arrival of my period every month.
Now perhaps you are thinking this must have happened a long time ago, or that I grew up in a traditional village setting. In fact, I was born and raised in Canada and got my period in 1986. My father is university-educated and my mother is a financial adviser. At the time I got my period they had been living in Canada for 13 years. Now, I’m lucky because I was in a reasonable education system so knew what was happening to my body when my period started. Moreover, my parents, despite their static ideas about a particular understanding of gender, religion and South Asian culture, were otherwise reasonable people who were committed to mine and my sister’s education.
But I think my experience is relevant for two reasons. The first is that we must not presume to know where and how gendered cultural practices are manifest. Consequences may emerge for different groups of people and it may not always be obvious or even visible. The second is that we risk overlooking deeply-rooted cultural practices and perceptions. And these are not only about a lack of access to pads and tampons. It is also about taboos that prevent us from talking about menstruation not as a source of shame, exclusion or untouchability, but as a natural process and even as a sign of health. I believe our main challenge is to uncover the everyday practices like these that perpetuate gender inequality. We must recognise how these more invisible or subtle forms of gender inequality underpin wider inequality. A collective silence around so basic a female bodily function has very real, and sometimes catastrophic, consequences for the lives of women and girls everyday. So let’s talk about menstruation.
Dr. Lata Narayanaswamy is Honourary Research Fellow at SIID and an Advisory Board Member of Irise International. Since 2001 she has worked as a research practitioner, consultant and lecturer in gender and development. She has published her work in international journals including Development and Change, Narrative Inquiry and Geography Compass and is currently writing a book entitled Gender, Power and Knowledge-for-Development, to be published by Routledge’s flagship book series Routledge Studies in Gender and Development. She is a passionate advocate for gender equality and is keen to build awareness of inequality and why feminism is still so important to this task.