Social development specialist, Rebecca Calder, gives us her take on why we need to adopt a feminist lexicon in the menstrual health field.
As the mother of a teenage girl, as a development practitioner specialising in adolescent girls, and as a feminist, I am all about empowering menstruators.
So it’s no surprise there’s very little that makes me cringe when it comes to menstruation. I fondly remember that my first-ever pad was made from “witches hair” moss, constructed by my awesome brother on a camping trip.
I purposefully go to the male check-out clerk when I buy tampons.
I revel when my daughter and her teenage friends talk about their periods in the car, in front of my husband, and my husband makes useful suggestions for pain management.
But you know what does make me cringe? The language that we – as women, feminists, and development practitioners – use around menstruation.
I’ve long disliked the term “menstrual hygiene management”. It makes it seem like menstruation is something unhygienic, impure, polluted, dirty.
I did most of my anthropological research in South Asia, where menstrual seclusion and restrictions are practiced amongst certain groups. So I feel that we need to ensure that we are not reinforcing myths and prejudices that exclude those menstruating from everyday life and opportunities. The language we use is important in breaking down those prejudices.
I understand that women, girls and others who menstruate are concerned with maintaining cleanliness during menstruation, particularly as it relates to concealing menstruation, and that this is of particular concern in certain cultures. I also understand that menstruation can be managed – or, more accurately, mismanaged – in ways that puts health at risk.
But hygiene is just one small aspect of menstrual management. We’re also focused on empowering girls to talk about menstruation with others they feel comfortable with, and ensuring that they have access to pain relief and convenient and reliable menstrual products.
So here is my first ask: can we please call it menstrual management, or even menstrual health management? I know I’m not alone, because Menstrual Health Hub and US-based organisation Period.org’s fantastic global glossary suggests the term menstrual health management rather than menstrual hygiene management because “many people working outside of development or humanitarian programming choose to replace the word ‘hygiene’ with ‘ health’ because hygiene may reinforce stigma, taboo and the narrative that menstruation is dirty, impure, and something that needs to be hygienically managed or sanitized.”
My most recent bugbear is a term even worse than menstrual hygiene management. Wait for it….soiled menstrual products. Really? Yes. This is the term commonly used to talk about used menstrual products.
When I hear the term soiled, I personally think of diapers, poopy diapers. And I’m not the only one. This may not very scientific, but I’ve asked friends and family what they think of when I say “soiled”. From my 80 year old dad to my son’s 14-year-old girlfriend, soiled is universally equated with poo. Do we talk about “soiled bandaids”? No, we most certainly do not.
So, my second ask is: can we please just call them used menstrual products? We talk about reusable pads, not re-soilable pads. So, let’s lose the ‘s’ word altogether.
We can’t work in this area or say we care about menstrual management and empowerment, yet continue to use terms that frame menstruation as a dirty, unsanitary or shameful experience. It’s time for us to start creating and using a more empowering feminist lexicon around menstruation.
Rebecca Calder is a social development specialist with a PhD in anthropology. She has 25 years of policy and field experience in Asia, Africa and the Pacific as an independent consultant, researcher, trainer and adviser. Her significant body of research has informed policy and prgoramming for national governments, multilateral and bilateral agencies, NGOs and civil society actors, foundations, and the private sector. Rebecca has recognised expertise on issues related to adolescent girls, sexual and reproductive health, economic empowerment and social norms, and her on-going research into the inclusion and empowerment of adolescent girls continues to be on the cutting edge of gender-based development research.