Indian women speak out against FGM

This article is part 1 of a two-part series on FGM in India

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is traditionally known to be practised in 30 African countries. According to latest reports from international agencies like UNICEF, it is said that FGM has been done on at least 200 million girls.

I recently interviewed Masooma Ranalvi who began a campaign to encourage Indian women from the Bohra community to speak up against the practice. The practice is called Khatna locally and is classified as Type 1 FGM by the WHO. It is estimated that there are nearly 1.5 million Bohras globally who have undergone FGM but numbers on how many have been cut are still unavailable.

GG: I read about the campaign India Speaks Out on FGM through the article highlighting the petition in The Ladies Finger. Till I read this article, I had no idea that the practice existed in India. It is usually portrayed as an African issue. Your thoughts?

MR: Yes that’s true. It is India’s best kept secret. There is a reason behind it. We as Bohra women who were subject to it never spoke about the practice to anyone ever. It is an extremely secretive ritual and a shroud of silence around it. Beginning from the manner in which it is done, by deceit, by not even informing the girl child about what is to happen to her. And of course no information about the WHY of it. The pain and trauma resulting from this is repressed and suppressed and no one wants to reveal or talk about it.

Second factor is the shame behind talking about this. As women we have been taught never to talk about anything sexual, about our reproductive organs, our sexuality and sexual problems. Until we began to speak out in open. This has in turn inspired many women to do so.

GG: How long have you been working on this issue?

MR: Since last year.

[You can read her writing about her experience here]

GG: You have on multiple occasions spoken about your own experience of Khatna. You are also documenting the experiences of other Bohra women who have experienced it. Why do you think this is important?

MR: For one its important for women to speak out about it. It is cathartic. It helps release the anger, frustration, helplessness. Secondly, its important for the world at large to hear these stories of a hidden and secretive ritual that being carried on since centuries in our own backyard. This is your regular educated and savvy women, who are professionals, who do it to their daughters. Sometimes we need to show a mirror to ourselves, to see what and who we actually are. And finally and most importantly these stories are inspirational and help building solidarity with our other sisters and strengthen our anti FGM movement.

GG: What were the challenges you have faced while speaking up?

MR: The biggest challenge is to challenge the control of the clergy over the bodies and minds and lives of the adherents. The control is not just over the religious practices but over secular life as well. The control is deep and absolute and women or men who have even remotely challenged any practice have been threatened with repercussions. There is a strong and real fear of social boycott which has been used in the past to bring dissenters in line. Women fear for themselves and their families, their businesses and their social lives as well. The challenge for us is to break this fear psychosis and give them courage to speak out. Because this is a practice which harms us and our girls. We need to speak about it to banish it from our lives.

From February 6 (which is recognised as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) by the United Nations General Assembly) to March 8 (International Women’s Day) India Speaks Out on FGM along with Sahiyo are running a campaign called Each One, Reach one.

GG: Through Each One, Reach One, what do you hope to achieve?

MR: The underlying principle behind it is to help break the silence now. The campaign aims to erase the secrecy around female circumcision and generate a healthy dialogue about it.During our  conversation, we want share stories about khatna: memories of the day when the cut was done, feelings and emotions towards the experience, the reasons given for the practice, the reasons behind the silence around the practice, the physical, psychological and sexual impact of the practice for women. A healthy conversation that is  respectful, rather than judgmental, moralistic or aggressive.

Apart from speaking out about Khatna, Masooma is also trying to draw the attention to the fact that United Nations doesn’t list India as a location where it is practised. This is a grave oversight and injustice to the women who it has been practised on and those who might suffer it. However the Sustainable Development Goals now make it mandatory for all countries to begin reporting on FGM. 

To help, Sign the petition to End FGM in India, and help spread the word and raise awareness! 

Featured image courtesy of India Speaks Out on FGM campaign. 

*Post has been edited to clarify the number of Bohra women estimated to have experienced FGM and to make a note of the SDG requirement to report on FGM. 

The Diary of an Indian sex-educator

Her: “Is it possible for you to talk on menstruation and child sexual abuse to young girls?”

Me: “Sure! What age are they?”
Her: “Studying in Class 5 and 6.”
Me: “Great! That shouldn’t be a problem.”
Her: “There is one thing though, you can’t talk about sex.”
Awkward silence followed.
I had no choice but to agree.
This was my first encounter with sex-ed.

I had been working with a feminist organisation in Hyderabad for a year already. I was 24 years old. I trained on legal rights, human rights and legislations but had not started training on sex, sexuality or reproductive health, for that matter. Those were reserved for experienced trainers. The above conversation was merely an introduction to the long list of conditions sex educators must work with.

To prepare for this class in a private school in a posh part of the city, I spent two weeks reading. I read about the human body. I studied how the parts looked. I read books for kids, for adults, for trainers, for teachers all in the hope that I would find the language to talk about sex without talking about sex. I worried about the language I could use. I worried about the details I could go into. I worried about the questions the girls would raise. A colleague advised me to stop fretting so much and just be honest and tell them everything I knew.

I walked into a classroom full of excited 10-12 year old girls armed with illustrations, stories and honesty.

Yes, only girls.

It was a co-ed school, but the boys were not going to learn about the body.

An illustrated and simple path was used to explain the body to them. We had two hours to ourselves. They asked questions about bodily changes. I responded to them as simply as I could, trying to conceal my uncertainty. To add to my unease, female teachers sat around the classroom like word-police to monitor the words used. I survived my first session.

After that first experience, I got more relaxed at doing sex-ed classes. I realised how relevant it was for girls (and boys!). I struggled trying to explain sex without saying sex. But, in order to conduct this session, we negotiated to do a free session on gender, with both boys and girls in an older age group. The hope was that we would be able to touch some more complex issues as well while staying away from sex.

One day a young girl from the same school came up after class to say, “Ma’am, there is a girl in my class who’s had…” Her voice drifted. She obviously had been warned to not say the word. I was terrified. How will I respond to her without using the forbidden word? What am I supposed to ask her now? Where were these kids having sex without any adult catching them?


I found the words to ask her how she knew. She said she had seen them. The imagery that flooded my brain in those moments is hard to pen down. To be honest, I was shocked and worried for her and for the children she had seen engaging in the act. These kids were after all just 10. Seeing two people have sex must have raised all kinds of questions! But how could I even ask further?

After a few moments of silence, I summoned the courage to ask her to describe what she saw. When she explained, I realised she hadn’t seen them have sex but seen them kiss. I was relieved. But kissing was taboo for me to address as well. I struggled to find words to help ease her worries and to say that they weren’t actually having sex.

To explain menstruation or puberty -and not sex or how reproduction works- often means young girls and boys often have no idea HOW the sperm enters the female body. In their minds, it could have travelled through the mouth!

That is, of course, they discover the internet or maybe porn.

As I continued on the path of sex-education, it only got more complicated. This wasn’t an isolated experience where sex educators are encouraged to talk about menstruation, health, child sexual abuse and even violence without bringing up sex. We can explain the process of menstruation without talking about the male parts or male functions. But every time I left it at “When the sperm fertilises the egg”, a hand would go up in class, “But how?”

Soon I learnt that their curiousity and questions were not the only things I would have to tackle. We used illustrations while talking about the body, sex and sexuality because we felt it would be easier to digest these concepts this way. Once my colleague and I were training a group of 80 women on sexual and reproductive rights in the old city of Hyderabad. There were women of all age groups, married, unmarried, young, sexually active, not active yet,  the whole spectrum. We began with a few exercises through mapping of parts of the female body, including sexual parts, and in a box, the parts of the male body.

Girl: Woh wahan hota hai na.

Us: Woh kya hai? Aur kahan hai? Dikha toh do.

Girl: *giggle*

(Translation: That is there na?

What is that? And where is it? Do show us.)

It took us a good hour and a half to just get the parts of the body down on the chart paper. Many of them were not named and the shapes were unknown. Most of the women and girls didn’t know about the several orifices in the female body. Ovaries were the easiest to name. Fallopian tubes existed somewhere in that area. Vagina and uterus were hard to differentiate. They beat around the bush when asked about female pleasure. Anger, hate and pain were easier to pinpoint on the body; pleasure and joy were more difficult. Giggles were the most common response to any question.

They had trouble using the word ‘penis’; forget drawing it. We moved on by showing illustrations with close ups of the body parts-particularly sexual body parts. We also circulated a labeled drawing of the female sexual parts to show the many different parts of the body. To our surprise, one of the girls in the front row began to weep. I nudged my colleague who continued the class as I led the girl outside the classroom.

Talking about the body, I have learnt, can lead to varied experiences. The young girl confessed that she had never seen a picture of a penis before. It was overwhelming for her. She told us that it was not like what she imagined or knew. She was shaken by the open conversation we were attempting.

I was unnaturally nervous when I had to address my first mixed-gender group. I had fallen deep into a comfort zone of only addressing same-sex groups. How would I talk about this to both in the same room? Will they react well? Will the girls giggle? Will the boys be accepting?


I was reminded of my own biology class on reproduction. My teacher made little or no eye contact with us. We all giggled.

Not making eye contact, was just like talking about menstruation, but not sex.

But I had learnt that eye contact helped; one could talk about sex while having to talk about something else.

It was a week-long course at a college in the city. HIV/AIDS was the chosen topic. We had to talk about it (without talking about sex, remember!). The only relief was there weren’t any teachers in the room. After breaking up the class into small groups, we handed out sheets of paper on HIV/AIDS and we sneakily added questions on sex, sexuality and masturbation.

The questions were provocative, attempting to break myths about masturbation as well as sexual pleasures. The effect was beautiful. The class was initially shy, but as they realised this was a non-judgmental space they began to talk about how no one had ever used the word masturbation above a whisper. After their group work, we addressed the questions together. Some of them more vocal than the others, but questions were answered in loud cheers of “Yes!” and “No!”

“Is masturbation dirty? – No.

Can we have sex during menstrual cycle? – Yes.

Condoms are 100% effective. – No.”

It was one of my most open and honest experiences during sex-ed. Students talked about how no one had ever spoken to them openly about sex which had led to several misconceptions -especially about the female body and pleasure. Unfortunately when they discussed the class with their political sciences teacher, I received a look of disapproval from her the next day.

I did not make eye contact; I just smiled to myself.

The sessions helped me see that it is never too late for a sex-ed class. A safe (pun intended), fun and explorative space – where we can use the word sex, like we use other words is what we need.

This piece originally appeared on Agents of Ishq. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Illustrations courtesy of Samidha Gunjal/Agents of Ishq

Fighting the perfect shape

Growing up, I was extremely skinny. Though I met parts of the ideal body image, I was always asked a lot of questions about not eating enough. Ironically, I was a massive junk food and candy eater. Grass was greener on the other side and I ached to put on weight. At least to stop the inappropriate malnutrition questions being thrown at my mother.

Puberty and certain lifestyle changes had a surprise waiting for me. I began to slowly but steadily put on weight. Surprise, surprise! I was extremely unhappy despite the fact that my wish had come true. Till I began to read and critically analyse body image, I was reduced to covering up the flab and dressing in loose fitted clothes. Finally giving in to the uneasy feelings, I wandered into a doctor’s office to get some clarity on the weight gain. Only to find out I had a health condition (Poly Cystic Ovaries Syndrome) that had certain correlations with weight gain.
Body image is a huge problem across the world. Fat shaming as well as skinny shaming is a common practice. This has led to a lot of eating disorders world over. Only off late are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa being discussed with the seriousness they demand.

While working with media students in Hyderabad, India, I have heard a lot about the temptation to succumb to severe crash diets to get that perfect body. In India, we enjoy policing of the neighbourhood variety. A friendly neighbour who is watching the gradual weight gain drops a off-hand comment about the fat. It perhaps trigger shame and eventually crash diets. Recently, a woman in India was turned away from a store and asked to go to a gym. Similarly in London, women and men were handed fat-shaming cards. Both of these incidents had a lot of response from women speaking up about the viciousness of fat shaming in our society. The slippery slope between fat and ugly make matters worse for those struggling with confidence.

Movies, television, magazines don’t help this struggle with our body. The actresses seem to get skinnier and we aren’t even fully questioning the role of photoshop in this debate. Fortunately, actresses are speaking up about the insidiousness of the tendency to photoshop women’s bodies.

Similarly, individuals  and groups fight this downward spiral of a uniform body type through campaigns rooted in self-love. The recent #BeyondBeautyInitiative of Wear Your Voice Mag is a beautiful campaign breaking the stereotypes of ideal body type. Women of all sizes are photographed.

Similarly artists are imagining society with representation of all kinds of women. It is interesting to see women reclaim this space to assert our rights on our bodies over the right of the market to determine which body is legitimate or beautiful.

Health and weight gain

Like I mentioned above, I have a condition where I am prone to a lot of weight gain. One of the characteristics of Poly-Cystic Ovaries Syndrome is weight gain because often those women have resistance to carbohydrates and sugar. Accompanied with it are also symptoms of excessive body hair particularly on the face, arms etc. One of the biggest problems of this syndrome is the drop in self-esteem of women as they fail to meet society’s and market’s description of an ideal body type.

I am not insinuating that all women who are not skinny have health problems. It was true in my case but that is a rarity. This is another issue as we tend to talk about health issues and weight gain together. But the truth is what the bathroom scales did not tell me was that the extra weight gain or the body hair did not make me any less beautiful. Perhaps we need to fix the problem by demanding better representation in media. What we see right now is a uniformity that is appalling and misleading. Taking back our bodies is not an easy battle, but it is doable – together. And perhaps a good place to start as we enter year 2016 is to not throw the word fat around as an insult.

Featured image courtesy of Charlotte Astrid / Flickr

Women and Communities Working Together to Improve Maternal and Newborn Health

When women work together, change happens. Regardless of where you live in the world, this is a fact that cannot be denied. Women give life, care for their families, work in markets, trade commodities and help their families grow and thrive. We have all heard that if you invest in a woman, she in turn will invest 90% of what she earns back into her family to improve their livelihood. So why do millions of women – and their babies – continue to face unnecessary and life-threatening risk and danger around the world every day? Women lack access to adequate healthcare facilities, skilled birth attendants and at times are not allowed to receive care from a healthcare facility due to cultural stigmas. Despite notable progress that has been achieved, the fact remains that health disparities for women and newborns continue to be broad and interlinked.

In 2014, the World Health Organization set forth a recommendation based on fifteen years of maternal and newborn health research. The recommendation posited the need to create women’s groups to improve the health of mother’s and newborns around the world. The good news is, change for the health of mothers, their babies and communities in happening right now in countries like Bangladesh, Malawi and India. Over the past six years, women’s groups have been piloted in these countries. The purpose of these groups is four-fold. Women of reproductive age and expectant mothers gather together in their communities to identify and prioritize maternal and newborn health issues. Many of these groups are led by community health workers and skilled birth attendants. Women and in many groups men begin to work together to strategize on how they help mothers and babies thrive in their communities.

In rural Bangladesh, these strategies were put into practice as health workers gathered mothers and their young children into groups. Mothers attended at least six meetings prior to giving birth. They were supported and learned about good health practices and proper newborn care. From 2009-2011, there was a 38% reduction in newborn mortality in these communities. In India, expectant mothers between the ages of 15-49 participated in women’s groups from 2009 to 2012. Through a participatory learning process, women came together to talk about the maternal and newborn health issues in their communities. Through learning about the problems and seeking effective solutions, there was a 31% reduction in neonatal mortality in these communities.

In Malawi, change for mothers and newborns is happening in leaps and bounds. In a country where maternal mortality still remains very high, at 510 per 100,000 live births, communities are stepping up to tackle the issues. Reporting and understanding maternal deaths is a significant problem in a variety of communities in Malawi. Through University College of London’s (UCL) Institute for Global Health, in a pilot study conducted from 2011-2012 communities in the Mchinji district rallied together from 2011 to 2012 working to report maternal deaths. Through identifying the number of maternal deaths in their community, community members were able to think about the causes of death as well as potential solutions.

Women and Children First UK is leading the way in their approach to women’s groups in Malawi and other regions of the world. Through their work with women’s groups the number of mother’s seeking care from skilled birth attendants and receiving post-natal care has increased significantly. Mikey Rosato, Senior Programs Manager, passionately talked about the change happening among mothers, fathers and entire communities. Women’s groups are nothing new nor are they rocket science. Rosato remarked, “When you bring 30 women together in a community they have all the power they need to create change for maternal health.” Rosato and other colleagues focus on local community-led approaches which are the best solutions for improving the lives of women, mothers, fathers and the entire community as a whole. The result? Feasible solutions and action for mothers and babies which is led by the community for the community.

In all of the women’s health groups, women and communities spent time evaluating their work.  The Women’s Groups model is a sustainable way to work towards improving the lives of women, mothers and newborns around the world. These groups are further evidence that women’s strength often comes in numbers. Communities, women and healthcare facilities can and are working together to create change and improve the lives of mothers and babies.

Want more information?

Cover Photo Credit: Macpepple-jaja foundation, Flickr Creative Commons

Follow the hashtag #GlobalMNH and @GirlsGlobe on Twitter, Instagram and Periscope for live coverage from the Global Maternal Newborn Health Conference, and stay tuned on

Mumbai Midwifery: An Interview with Lina Duncan

Originally posted on Maternal Matters.

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Maternal Matters is so excited to feature British midwife and global citizen, Lina Duncan, who set up Mumbai Midwife – Justlink Health Services India Pvt Ltd, a private midwifery practice, in India. Thanks Lina for taking the time to be interviewed for Maternal Month – this will be insightful and inspiring for many!



1. Why and where did you train to be a midwife?

I “stumbled” into a school in El Paso, Texas whilst on travels, with blue hair and no set future plan. I joined the Primary Health Care course for third world settings, and towards the end, I decided to not jump into the next segment of the school and train as a midwife, would be like walking out of a five star restaurant after the appetiser!

2. What are you most passionate about as a midwife?

That’s easy – dignity and respect.

I have learnt something at every birth I attended and the more I learn, the more I realise the importance of keeping things as undisturbed as possible, and the importance that the woman feels safe.

3. You are a true global citizen – what has taken you around the world and how have you come to live and work in India?

I was born in Scotland and grew up and worked in the UK. I always liked an adventure and a challenge. Training under the National College of Midwifery in New Mexico was not in my life plan but I thoroughly enjoyed the learning experience. Our college fees ran clinics in slums in the Philippines so naturally, our practical learning application was there. That’s where I grew into a midwife and my heart expanded to the poor. I thought I would grow old in the Philippines and be a part of seeing generations of babies entering the world. Anyway, Asia was in my blood and I spent 5 years working on myself and learning new skills in Hong Kong before coming to India in 2007 with a small group of friends to set up a business here.

4. What is it like to work as a midwife in India?

In the beginning it was an adventure but a struggle also because there is no such midwifery model of care as there is in the UK and no system like the NHS! The poor access care through government hospital systems and still need to buy their vitamins in pregnancy, and medications for birth. The families who choose care with private doctors/ hospitals also need to struggle with a system that is very medically rooted – compulsory episiotomy for first time mothers, high cesarean rates etc. I took time to find doctors who would appreciate the benefits of having midwifery support for their clients. Then everyone is a winner! After 7 years my colleagues and I now have a venue we can access and a small team of doctors that can provide an option of midwife care alongside the doctor. Women and their families have said they felt safe, respected and were delighted with their experiences.

5. Midwives are not always viewed as highly trained and skilled professionals in India. Have you had to overcome others’ misconceptions and how have you done this?

I think in Asia there has been a concept that the doctor is like a god. This makes it difficult for the doctor to “perform” perfectly and for women it’s hard, because for the last decade at least there has been an expectation for the care provider to make the decisions and provide the care and take the flack when things don’t go as expected.

Now women are informed and want to be the decision makers so it’s a new era. I have found that being a midwife I have respect from the doctors and the families choosing to hire our services.

I have sought doctors who want to work like this and who then have the benefits of working as a team. I also have some friends who are still assisting women in the streets and slums. They are not as busy as they used to be because there is a push for all to birth in an institution. I like to hear their stories and learn from them also. They are skilled through their inherited skills and years of practice.

6. It is unusual for women in India to birth at home or in water. Why do women seek out your services?

Actually the home-birth rate for the country is still quite high but this is mostly rural numbers.

It’s only 2 -3 generations back that most low risk mothers did birth at home with traditionally trained midwives.

With internet access and a more medical approach to birth two things are happening; women are having unnecessary cesareans often which leads them on a path of Vaginal Birth After Cesarean (VBAC) and women are growing up not hearing of birth as an everyday event, rather as something to fear and even opt out of trying with an elective cesarean. Some cesarean rates in private hospitals are up to 90 or even 99%. So homebirth for women who choose the option and don’t have any complicated health issues for themselves of their baby, is a safe option, with a backup plan for medical help in case it is needed. Using water for labour and / or birth helps a lot with relieving discomfort. It can speed up the process, and I would say that the highest benefit is to create a safe place for the woman where she can calmly go through the birth process with little to no intervention and regular monitoring. It’s a method that gives dignity and respect in itself if used under a midwife model.

7. How do you find it working as a private midwife in a country with so much poverty?

Mumbai Woman
Photo credit: Elleen Delhi Flickr Creative Commons

With my training being mostly rooted in serving women and their families living in slums this is something I have a passion for. Starting a business and running it was a culture shock for me because in the Philippines we provided free care. I love both! In our spare time we have assisted quite a few families in accessing government care. We have provided something similar to a doula service – advocating for them, teaching them the system so they can access care independently in the future. We have supported local families through pregnancy issues, health complications in pregnancy such as TB, Malaria, Dengue, Typhoid, getting vaccinations for their babies, family planning, registering homebirths that happened too fast. Occasionally we have been able to be with some of them in labour and birth. In the same way, support and feeling safe, is just as important in the big private hospitals where intervention and cesarean rates are soaring.

I would love to train local staff with doula skills to provide support for each woman as I believe that when women feel safe and cared for, they enter parenting in a more loving and prepared manner. It can change society.

8. What is your dream for midwifery in India?

That everyone has access to Midwifery care – in the government hospitals, as well as the private. Midwifery model of care has so many benefits, including taking a large case load off doctors so they can manage the more complex women that require their expertise.

Skilled midwives can save lives and give safe and scientific based care in rural and urban settings.

I would like to see evidence based care such as NICE in the UK where they have changed the cord clamping protocols. Also not putting every woman on IV drips, limiting induction / augmentation for the cases that really need it etc.

9. How does your ideal day start?

After a few hours of sleep, a phone call for a birth, the excitement of a baby on the way.

Want to learn more?


Follow @MumbaiMidwife & #MaternalMonth


Cover Photo Credit: Shrinivas Sankaran, Flickr Creative Commons

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.