Sustainable Menstruation: Reflections Of A Menstrual Educator

We are all ingrained with patriarchal notions, and the only possible way of debunking each of these notions is to question ourselves at every step.

As menstruators, the notion that disposable sanitary napkins are the best and safest means to manage menstrual fluid has been drilled into our psyche by giant corporate conglomerates. Like many menstruators, I too depended on these disposable sanitary napkins for most of my menstrual life. In 2015 after a surgery, I started developing recurrent infections, rashes and dryness after every menstrual cycle. Repeated dosages of pills, syrups, ointments would definitely subside the symptoms, but the infections would always return in the next cycle. This continued for close to 3 years with no respite. Around the same time, I started doing some research on sustainable menstrual products and finally in 2018, I switched to menstrual cups. This switch not only made me experience hassle free menstruation but made my recurrent rashes, infections a thing of the past.

So, this was my story.  There are millions like me who get these rashes, infections or irritations but are unaware of the reasons causing them – disposable sanitary napkins! Yes! the excess amount of carcinogenic, acetonic chemicals was the reason why my vagina and urethra were always angry. I decided that no one else should suffer like I did and, in the process, initiated my journey into the domain of sexual and reproductive health.

I began my journey as a menstrual educator in 2019. Initially, I made social media videos to spread the word about sustainable menstruation. Currently I am collaborating with different organisations to deliver sessions on menstruation, sustainability and provide training for trainers on how to replicate such sessions in their communities.

For my work, I have had to network with people from various like-minded organisations, sometimes even not so like-minded organisations, individuals, not-for-profit bodies, and for-profit bodies. While I always have an elevator pitch ready, this is usually followed by questions and sometimes statements which has been quite insightful in expanding my understanding of different perspectives in the field of menstrual health/sustainable menstruation.

The domain of menstruation is mostly dominated by female menstruators and is heavily influenced by the idea of “lived experiences”. My interactions however have led me to work through a bunch of questions arising from how the field of menstrual health is being negotiated. Foremost among these being – is experiencing menstruation the only form of “lived experience” in this case? Or, can we undermine a non-menstruator’s experience who has seen a menstruator around suffering from taboos, stigma, shame or health issue? At times, in a room full of menstruators and non-menstruators, lived experiences of menstruators may emerge as the most reliable medium of understanding menstruation over a non-menstruator’s informed knowledge or years of experience gained out of working in the domain. What does this mean essentially mean? Are we in the process of trying to fight against menstrual shaming, also falling victim to the patriarchal notion that menstruators, especially female bodies, would have the best know-how about menstruation as it is traditionally a ‘women’s issue’ or ‘private to women’? Is our perception towards lived experiences limited? Isn’t inclusion about honouring any experience as lived experience, in this case, notwithstanding whether or not one is a menstruator?

As a social development professional, one has to often take decisions on behalf of communities and beneficiaries. These decisions are informed by a professional’s knowledge, expertise and the community’s needs. The end aim of any such decision is to enable the community or beneficiary to have a better life and feel empowered. But here’s what we may have to remain careful about: at a personal level, I understand true empowerment as giving someone the opportunity and power to make informed choices. As a menstrual educator, I have experienced situations where the conversation revolved around how a particular community of women may not accept sustainable menstrual products like cups or washable cloth pads due to the culture of shame around menstruation. Isn’t this the very notion we are all fighting against? The effort here is towards destigmatizing menstruation and enabling women to have agency leading to better choices for themselves and the environment. Hence, from the perspective of a menstrual educator, I feel that it is not fair to assume what a menstruator will or will not accept because of cultural contexts and limitations. Even disposable sanitary napkins took many years to be accepted as safe as well as ‘hygienic’ menstrual management products, and are currently the go to product for most menstruating women in our country. Today. this struggle for acceptability plagues us sustainable menstruation activists.

We are all ingrained with patriarchal notions, and the only possible way of debunking each of these notions is to question ourselves at every step. The domain of menstruation cannot be a ‘women only’ space or a ‘menstruator only’ space and we have to tread carefully when we work for a community. This, especially since the line between making a choice for somebody and influencing a choice of someone is often blurred.

Image via Unsplash

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