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By Archana Patkar, Head of Policy and Advocacy at WSSCC and Menstrual Hygiene Management expert
Ms.Patkar leads a team that works with national and local governments, policymakers, businesses and civil society in developing countries to promote inclusive development with a focus on equality and non-discrimination through sanitation and hygiene interventions.
Menstruation matters to everyone, everywhere. But it still matters so much more to women and girls, who have historically been asked to bleed in stoic silence so that no one even knows they have their period! It is slowly but surely becoming socially acceptable to start talking about periods, a biological fact as old as womankind itself. Society is finally coming of age and suddenly everyone is coming out about their vaginas.
At the Women Deliver conference in 2016, Jessica Biel bemoaned the world’s reluctance to talk openly about women's bodies. "[Body talk is] very shameful, and that’s the problem — why is it so shameful?" she asked. "I feel completely embarrassed talking about this stuff, even with my gynecologist, and why is that? It makes no sense. I am here because I want to pull the stigmas off female reproductive everything."
For every celebrity willing to break the silence, slow and steady web chatter is successfully whittling down those deep prejudices and walls that we have built at the intersection of multiple biases. Take male sexual identity and preference and add a monthly period to it, and what do you get? Even transgender guys have to deal with their periods at some point or another. And yet, it’s not something we talk about — most of us are ashamed. This shows that silence and shame are not the prerogative of the feminine. Stigma and shame also creep into men’s worlds all the time and everywhere.
In order to truly break the silence and ensure that periods are moved from the shameful to the shared, we must do more than stem the flow, we can actually run with it, red with glory. Musician and activist Kiran Gandhi recently ran the London Marathon in 2015 while bleeding freely. Fu Yuanhui, a Chinese swimmer who finished fourth in the women’s 4X100 metres medley relay at the Rio Olympics, made headlines for telling the world she was on her period. The more we are open about it, the more normal it will be, but it will take more than a handful of celebrities to spread the word.
So why this personal blood rush? In 2004, perplexed by the reluctance and deep resistance to speaking the ‘M’ word, I thought long and hard of a practical, action oriented entry point to simply take stock of who was finally talking about menstruation in their day to day work? What was preventing us from doing something about this shocking silence and injustice? How could we continue to see girls stay away from school, just because they had their monthly period? I coined the term Menstrual Hygiene and Management as a practical mix of information and practices that would together could ensure a safe and dignified menstrual period. Fast forward to a fabulous confluence of evidence and action, champions, policies and practices, media, and businesses that have joined in to break the silence and stigma on periods.
United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore reminds us that the denial of rights is a learned behavior, and therefore can just as easily all be unlearned. This won’t be easy. Centuries of silence, shame, restriction, coercion and injustice will need to be banished from our psyches. Is every teacher, parent and peer listening? Can we make sure that we unlearn these stereotypes without building new silos in their stead? The development community is used to working in strict boxes - some ‘do’ HIV; some do ‘gender’ and others ‘do’ WASH, health, education, jobs, or sexual reproductive rights. Instead, let’s do away with all prejudice, amnesia and blindness. .
Human beings come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. Coming out of the ‘bloody closet’ is a pathway for us all to talk more about our bodies in all their glory and therefore with all the intendant travails. Maybe we can better acknowledge the leaky closet, together with the wonders of stress incontinence during pregnancy or post-menopausal leakages?
Maybe we can add a healthy dose of fresh, clean mindsets at home, and have open conversations around the intimate and the personal. And maybe, since this requires no special funding, no projects, no extraordinary professional training or academic rigour and since it is so super simple—maybe, just maybe we can embrace humanity in its glorious diversity for generations to come. Whether in sign language or braille, Wolof or Mandarin, it is not difficult to take the pledge, break the silence, and make sure that we replace the stigma and shame of menstruation with dignity and pride.