By Purvaja S. Kavattur, Staff Associate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights

  • How much do we understand about the lived experiences of menstruating people who live in poverty, in detention, on the move, with a disability, or who experience homelessness? 
  • Do we address the needs and experiences of menstruators who identify as trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming
  • Overall, in the efforts to move menstruation from the margins to the center, do we leave some individuals behind? And if so, what can be done to correct this? 

These are just a few of the questions we discussed at the “Menstruation at the Margins” workshop at the Fondation Brocher in Hermance, Switzerland from December 10th to 13th 2019, organized by Working Group Fellows Inga Winkler, Chris Bobel, and Nancy Reame. The workshop brought together menstrual health advocates from across the globe to examine ways we can address unmet needs as menstrual health in gaining increasing attention .

Workshop attendees, including Working Group fellows Lauren Houghton and myself, ranged from researchers, advocates, activists, academics, entrepreneurs, to policymakers. Some were veterans in the menstrual health space and others were relatively new. This diversity was deliberate, seeking to bring in new ideas, new perspectives, and new voices. I found being exposed to such diversity in thought grounding, particularly as I began my own work reviewing menstrual hygiene and health policy developments in Kenya, India, Senegal and the United States. It helped me consider different questions and analytical frameworks when thinking about marginalization, especially as I began developing the project design and objectives.

Worldwide menstruation is moving from the margins towards the center through many concurrent and overlapping efforts. More and more countries are developing legislative and policy frameworks on menstrual hygiene and health; organizations at various scales are putting in place menstrual health programming; advocates are spearheading campaigns such as #HappyToBleed; others are engaging in menstrual art, new menstrual products and menstrual apps are mushrooming, and major magazines are covering menstruation. However, despite this momentum (or even because of it and the perceived need to move quickly), we asked whether the most marginalized menstruators are neglected and left behind.

This workshop focused on the menstrual health needs of three marginalized populations in particular: persons living with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, and trans and gender non-binary individuals. Workshop organizers acknowledged that there is tremendous diversity within each group but hoped to make an earnest effort to begin to understand the lived experiences of a diversity of menstruators. Presentations by several people speaking from their own experience and other experts focused on what menstruators need, and how these needs and interests should inform policy-making.

The panel on Menstruators’ Voices was particularly grounding. It was led by Pragya Mahajan, Sonalee Kinnarma, Robyn Steward, and Patricia Mulongo. They are activists seeking to draw attention to the menstrual experiences of their respective visually impaired, trans, autistic, and hearing impaired communities . Panelists discussed their experiences with barriers and challenges regarding menarche and their menstrual cycle. They proposed solutions and new frameworks to address these issues. For example, Steward noted that autistic people are very literal and often find menstrual product advertisements confusing because they are laced with euphemisms. They suggested doing away with euphemisms which not only confuse but also further stigmatize periods. The issues raised in this panel were constantly revisited throughout the workshop. As we moved into discussing the evidence base, their experiences reminded us that the way we ask questions may not represent the experiences of everyone, especially those at the margins.

Finally, discussions turned from “who are we leaving out” into “how do we use this information to re-inform policies and practices moving forward?”” Personally, I was struck by the diversity in menstrual experiences and how these experiences change for individuals over the life-course. Moving forward, in my work analyzing menstrual health policies across the globe, I will reflect on which populations policy-makers include and (inadvertently) how they continue to address the needs of these populations as they age and move through different formal and informal settings.  Overall, as workshop attendees and menstrual health advocates, we shared articles, policy tool kits, contacts and resources. We formed connections and discussed collaborations. Above all, we left with a sharpened commitment to ensure that the menstrual movement does not leave those at the margins behind.