Menstrual Hygiene Explored: Capturing the Wider Context

Written by Irise’s Guest Writer Chris Bobel, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston

This blog is part of Irise International’s #12DaysofChristmas Campaign.

This summer, I bought a new camera. I needed it to snap pictures during a research trip to India where I explored diverse approaches to Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM). I chose a sleek, high tech device with a powerful, intuitive zoom.

In Bangalore, I captured the sweet intimacy of two schoolgirls as they watched the menstrual health animated video “Mythri” at a government school.

tailor at EcoFemme
c/o Irise International

In Tamil Nadu, I used my zoom for close shots of skilled women tailors sewing brightly colored cloth menstrual pads for the social business, Eco Femme.

In South Delhi, I used my zoom to preserve the mounds of cloth painstakingly repurposed as low cost menstrual pads at NGO Goonj.

But here’s the problem. These close up shots may please the eye, but they leave out the context that surrounds and shapes each photo’s subject. And what exists outside the frame is at least as important as what is inside. That’s hardly a revelation, I realize, but when it comes to doing Menstrual Hygiene Management work, in an effort to find solutions, the “big picture”—both literally and figuratively—sometimes gets obscured.

c/o Irise International
c/o Irise International

For example, when I snapped the picture of the mound of menstrual pads pictured here, I focused on a product, a simple product, that could truly improve the quality of someone’s life.  But when I trained my attention on the product, what did I miss?

In short, a wider angle lens reveals the context of menstrual product access –a complicated web of many intersecting issues: infrastructural deficits (safe, secure, and clean latrines and sites for disposal), access to resources (like soap and water), gender norms, and menstrual restrictions rooted in culture or religion and more.

Imagine that one of these brightly colored packages of menstrual pads ends up in the hands of a 15 year old girl. I will call her Madhavi.

c/o Irise International
c/o Irise International

Madhavi is delighted to have a dedicated set of her very own clean rags to absorb her flow.

But does she have access to clean water and soap to wash them?

Does she have family support to dry her rags on the clothesline, in direct sunlight, even though her brothers, uncles and neighbors will be able to see them?

Does she have a safe, secure place at school to change her rags?

Does she have someone to turn to when she has a question about her menstrual cycle?

These questions are important because they point to what gets in the way of effective and sustainable MHM. My own review of the emerging empirical literature on MHM revealed that the top three impediments to school girls’ positive and healthy menstrual experiences are 1) inadequate facilities 2) inadequate knowledge and 3) fear of disclosure, especially to boys.

As we know throughout the West, menstrual taboos do not disappear as we upgrade our menstrual care. Without the heavy lifting of menstrual normalization, any menstrual care practice, will make a minimal impact. Menstrual activism must always incorporate a true gender analysis of the role of boys and men in maintaining the menstrual status quo. Even more significantly, it must engage their potential as allies, not enemies.

c/o Irise International

If we enlarge the frame even further, we see how Menstrual Hygiene Management is part of a complex and enduring project of loosening the social control of women’s bodies, of working to move embodiment, more generally, from object to subject status—something absolutely foundational to taking on a host of other urgent issues; from human trafficking to eating disorders to sexual assault…

With this in mind, I turn back to Madhavi. One day, inevitably, someone will know she is menstruating. Will she be shamed or supported?

The answer lies in how we frame the picture.

If MHM campaigns are to succeed, we must take steps to train boys and men to treat menstruating girls with respect. That’s a tall order that cuts to the very core of gender norm socialization. But if we don’t take this on, no product in the world will be enough.

Anyone with a camera knows that framing a picture is a choice. Am I suggesting that we should never use the zoom, that we should forgo the rich and textured details possible when we tighten the shot? Of course not, as focus is crucial to our understanding. But when we do aim our figurative cameras and shoot, let’s not forget what lies outside the visual frame. Let’s not forget what else must change for the pad to be a truly sustainable solution.

chris_headshot2Chris Bobel, PhD, is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, USA. Her scholarship lies at the intersection of social movements, gender, health and embodiment, or how feminist thinking becomes feminist doing at the most intimate and immediate levels. She is the author of The Paradox of Natural Mothering, New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation and co-editor of Embodied Resistance: Breaking the Rules, Challenging the Norms. Her current project is an ethnographic study of menstrual health campaigns targeting school girls in the Global South. And she recognizes that this headshot captures only a sliver of her identity.


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Category: Menstruation
Tagged with: #MenstruationMatters    Girls    Health    India    Irise International    Menstrual health    menstrual hygiene    Menstruation    MHM    Periods    Women
  • Sarah Fry

    I so agree with you, that boys and men must be included in MHM conversations and activities. We have found that in Zambian schools, boys are happy to be included and just love to make pads! The taboos are pretty fragile and everyone is interested in knowing more about menstruation. That’s what we have learned in SPLASH (Schools Promoting Learning Achievement through Sanitation and Hygiene) in Zambia.

  • Chris Bobel

    Sounds like you’ve got a great program in place in Zambia, Sarah. I’d love to hear more! I love your observation that “taboos are fraglie…” In my experience, they are pretty sturdy, so I’d love to hear more about that, too. Thanks for reading and writing!

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  • Hi Chris:
    Great article. I would like to share with you some of the work we are doing in Kenya with MHM. we will be focusing on menstrual education among rural school and plan to include the boys. Please inbox me. I am at Boston University School of Public Health. Thanks