The Menstrual Health and Gender Justice Working Group would like to present our fearless leader, Professor Inga Winkler, to the blog! Professor Winkler is a lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Human Rights Program at Columbia University. She is the former legal advisor to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation (2009-2014), among many other notable achievements. 

Blog post contributed by research fellow Emma Horan


How did the working group come about? How did you get started in that topic?

For me, I’m coming to menstrual health through the perspective of human rights, which is my background. I have been working on menstruation from that perspective and thinking about what menstrual health means when you bring a human rights lens to it and what kind of questions we need to address. Some of my work (together with Chris Bobel) is focused on cultural and religious practices related to menstruation and thinking about how those are represented in the media and whether we do a good job at talking about those cultural and religious practices. Another of my menstruation related projects is the handbook that Chris Bobel, I and others are co-editing, where we are looking at critical menstrual studies. Many working group members are contributing to the handbook. We are hoping to bring all these various perspectives and discourses together so it covers everything from the more product focused material discussion to the human rights perspective to all the discussions about embodiment and menstruation, but also looking at the narrative we have around menstruation and questions of representation. The Handbook will be published in 2020.

The interdisciplinary perspective is fascinating – to see the different views people take and how they’re addressing menstruation. I have noticed an uptake in the attention to menstruation and it was exciting to have more and more students approach me about wanting to write their thesis on something menstruation-related. For the working group, the intention was to bridge the Morningside campus and Medical campus. When I reached out to people across campus, the response was very positive. As more people became involved, everyone got really excited about it, and were quite enthusiastic about getting together and exploring those linkages. Now our working group is about 25 people who all work on some aspect of menstruation. We hope to raise the visibility of research related to menstruation on campus and beyond and to feed this research into ongoing policy developments.

Why did you choose ‘Menstrual Health and Gender Justice’ as the name? How do these topics overlap?

I think if you look at menstruation and menstrual health, it seems like such a niche topic. It seems quite narrow and unjustly focused solely on the biological process. Menstrual health has implications across all areas of life. The lens of gender justice makes us think much more about how girls actually feel about their menstruation, what psycho-social stress it causes them, how comfortable they are in school and engaging with their various counterparts. But it also forces us to think about societal norms, perceptions and stereotypes: How do we perceive women and girls who are menstruating? Do we trust them? Do we think they are capable of taking big decisions for themselves and for others? Why is it that so many people think women on their periods are completely irrational? Taking that back to all these narratives and representations about menstruation and all these socio-cultural norms around menstruation, all the expectations, the idea is to capture that through the term of gender justice – to broaden the discussion beyond what seems like a niche topic.

What do you hope comes out of the working group? What are your goals?

Thinking about what gender justice means, a huge part of it is to consider and identify who is being marginalized and who is being left out of the more general discussions. If we agree that menstruation and the general discourse is moving more towards the center and the mainstream, we need to think about who is being left at the margins. The queer community and transgender community are certainly one part of that discussion. But we also need to consider refugees, migrants, persons with disabilities, homeless persons, people deprived of liberty, such as those in prisons and jails, among others. Acknowledging their experiences and thinking much more about what menstruation means for individuals and their lived experiences in so many different contexts – that would be a really good contribution the working group could make.

Additionally, as more and more programming and research about menstruation is developed, hopefully we can engage or intervene in these processes and developments by asking some critical questions about how we are moving forward. One example is all these false statistics. Recently, a statistic was circulated that claimed that 65% of females in Kibera have been engaging in transactional sex for getting access to pads. There is no basis for this claim and having the media sensationalize menstruation in that way and sensationalize women and girls’ experiences in that way, it is not useful for anyone. There has been another figure circulating claiming that 1 out of 10 girls in Africa miss school due to menstruation and again there is no claim for that. There have been small studies that look into school absenteeism but they are inconclusive and are limited in scope, they certainly don’t tell us anything about Africa as a whole. Africa is an entire continent! Looking critically at these developments and discussions and contributing research that challenges these developments would be great for the group.

Another big theme is the institutionalization of shame related to menstruation and exploring that further and how it impacts people who menstruate. How does that play out in the context of school, in the workplace, in conditions where people are deprived of liberty? These big questions around menstrual stigma will give us a lot to explore. And we need to tackle those to normalize menstruation.

What do you think the role of young people and  emerging scholars is? Why is their role in the working group, and more generally in research, important?

I think it’s great and exciting to have so many graduate fellows. Seeing the significant interest is validating for all of us working on these issues. You bring these fresh eyes and great ideas, all working on interesting and diverse projects. I think when you have been doing this for a while you can get somewhat stuck in your same routine in how you operate. Sometimes being relatively new as an emerging scholar gives you fresh eyes, which can challenge assumptions. More broadly, for scholars, it is valuable to bring in new approaches, new ideas, and new perspectives.  

Can you talk about the language around menstruation and its importance, especially with increased media attention on menstruation?

We have started to think about how to do a better job when discussing menstruation. I have been using the term menstruators as an inclusive term, but there is also a question as to if that is the best term. It captures anyone who menstruates, but then are we reducing people to just the fact that they menstruating? Adding an asterisk that not all women menstruate and not everyone who menstruates identifies as a woman also doesn’t really solve it. We need to do a better job at choosing the language we decide to use – and that language can differ depending on the context. But it’s so important to start by reflecting on the language we use and how that includes or excludes certain parts of the population. Showing the awareness of how the language we use can have a huge impact on the narrative we create, and how it can be exclusionary. I think it’s far from perfect, but it is certainly a starting point.

I think one of the big risks of the language we use for menstruation, particularly in the media, is developing a very narrow and homogenized understanding of what a period looks like. Because usually experiences are so much more diverse, and I think we need to accept that we don’t have any quick fixes, but that we can use some of those quick fixes that are being suggested to start the conversation and push beyond that from there. It is huge progress that we’re starting to talk more openly about menstruation so we better make use of that opportunity.

*This post has been edited for clarity and length.