Written by Niki Fitzgerald
Before the Irise menstrual hygiene (MH) education team left for Malawi, we underwent some training with Theatre for a Change (TfaC) on their innovative and highly interactive teaching methodology. As part of this preparation process our facilitator measured our confidence in talking about menstruation on an imaginary ladder. As I boldly began climbing to the top rung I hit a snag that held me up a few bars short. He asked, “How confident do you feel talking to men? How confident do you feel talking to your dad about your menstruation, for example?”
I had to concede that, even as co-coordinator of Irise’s MH Education Programme based in Uganda, I had reservations discussing the topic openly and confidently with men. I had even spent some time skirting around the details before I could finally tell my boss exactly what project I was leaving work for. As I paused on my rung of the ladder I felt a sinking feeling, realising this lack of confidence was a form of hypocrisy. I made some strict resolutions with myself to talk to more men and more openly because surely if I can’t talk to men about this issue, I’m going to miss so many opportunities for change. I won’t get to inform men I know in the UK about the difficulties girls around the world face managing their periods each month and I won’t be able to discuss the issue openly with men in East Africa; to explore their attitudes and how they can support their wives, daughters and communities with what is, essentially, a normal bodily function.
With all these reflections bubbling over I landed in “the warm heart of Africa.” I began to put my confidence to the test and was pleasantly surprised by the response Malawi’s men had to offer. First there was the hotel waiter who, peering over my shoulder at diagrams of female genitalia being prepared for the day’s session, politely asked what we were teaching. After a short pause to compose himself, he happily engaged in discussions including the merits of reusable over disposable products.
Then there were the male workshop participants who enthusiastically extolled the virtues of menstruation as good lubrication, shunning more traditional views of sex during menstruation being “a dirty business.” Even an inebriated young man in a bar was unperturbed by my attempts to repel his advances by loudly repeating that I work in the field of menstruation…but maybe that one doesn’t count?
Then there was Harry, TfaC’s smart finance intern who wouldn’t look out of place in a fancy bar in London. He persisted through his shyness of the topic to plaintively ask what he’s supposed to reply when his girl texts to say she can’t seem him this weekend as she’s on her period. And what he should have done when his young cousin came home from school crying but no one would tell him she had started her period, so how could he help?
In addition to a reassuring warmth and openness to discussion, each of these men showed me that it is not as simple as men preventing dialogue about menstruation, sometimes it’s down to women as well, but more often it’s long-held beliefs about what can be said about menstruation and by whom. This experience has not only pushed me another few rungs up my confidence ladder but has also shown me how liberating it can be to give women and men the language and opportunity to discuss menstruation.
Niki Fitzgerald is a junior doctor currently on a career break working as Coordinator of Irise’s Menstrual Health Education Programme in Uganda. She is a firm believer in the power of male feminists #Heforshe.