• Shruti Gautam

The Politicization of Menstrual Justice

The menstrual justice movement faces colonial suppression, cultural stigmatization, and now, politicization. Still, it fights on.

Around the world, movements to eliminate period poverty have been gaining momentum (Victoria Jones/PA).

As the United Nations declared, “Menstruation is not a girls’ or women’s issue — it’s a human rights issue.” Across the world, the stigma around periods manifests in different ways, with Nepali girls in villages subject to staying in huts in a traditional practice known as Chhaupadi to 1 in 5 girls in Britain experiencing abusive behavior in regards to menstruation. In India, religious tenets are used to justify excluding menstruators from temples, and, from a study done by WashAid in 2013, 48% of girls in Iran think menstruation is a disease. This stigma and misinformation directly leads to mismanagement of periods, and this unfortunate reality exists in the US as well.

Period poverty, or the inability to access the products to manage one’s period, is prevalent, barring youth from education or forcing women to choose between food and period products.

One in five female teens in the US cannot afford period products, and 4 out of 5 reported missing or know someone who missed school because of their period, according to a study done by Thinx and PERIOD in 2019.

The menstrual movement in the US, recognizing the glaring need for change, has grown significantly over the past years, with students advocating to their districts for the inclusion of free products in bathrooms and charity groups collecting period products as donations for emergency shelters. One of the biggest pushes has been for policy action, viewed as one of the most sustainable avenues for advocacy.

In Ohio, youth activists came together to eliminate the Tampon Tax, and more than a dozen states have introduced legislation to require free period products in schools. The US government re-classified period products as necessities in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities (CARES) bill, and in 2019, Representative Grace Meng of New York first introduced the Menstrual Equity For All Act to the US Congress. Significant work is being done in order to vocalize the voices in the menstrual movement, pinned down by centuries of stigma. However, policy change itself also is deterred by the same cultural barriers that make menstruators talk about periods in hushed tones.

The cultural environment in the US is replicated in Congress and often causes for historically stigmatized topics, such as menstruation and mental health, to be less discussed.

Politicians tend to deal with issues of this manner brazenly, leaving the legitimacy of these movements up to question and ticking off the human rights work as simply a progressive fad. This suppression is not new. Rewriting the narrative surrounding menstrual health has colonial roots.

In ancient Mayan civilizations, girls were pushed to take pride in the process, deriving power from Mayan divinity. Maidens participated in the Flower Song, a group celebration of sexuality. After the Spanish conquest of the indigineous groups, this aspect of cultural history was effectively destroyed. Overt discussion of sexual health and practices was considered uncivilized, and Europeans were able to colonize continents with stigma. The Ojibwe people, with tribal lands spanning from Quebec to Montana, also had rituals empowering young menstruators in which the entire tribe knew about the process as well. French colonization led to the erasure of historical records of many practices, but the Ojibwe oral tales persist. Today, such social practices are being re-introduced in an effort to mitigate the structural harm due to colonization, as these traditional rituals can improve the wellbeing of indigineous youth. Even in places where menstruation was widely considered a normal practice, not one warranting shame, patriarchal societies that condemned sexuality and related empowerment took over the land of indigineous peoples. The same colonization of discourse and culture is happening right now.

While discussing including period products in Tennessee's annual tax-exempt weekend, congresspeople were worried that women would buy too many products, based on the ignorant speculation that women would try to stockpile. School administrators will oppose having products in bathrooms as students would “misuse” them. Students face discomfort when trying to manage their periods at schools, especially if there is no support through products or proper sexual health education. Instead of working to protect the basic right of menstrual health, the US is split by false narratives, ostracizing groups. Such differences can cause political stagnation, with overarching policies on menstrual equity considered virtually impossible. Stigmatization is inherently linked with regressive or restrictive policies.

The Ojibwe of the Hoopa Valley Tribe's Flower Dance is making a return following generations of outside pressure.

Current racial stigmatization toward Black and Latino peoples catalyzed modern disenfranchisement, reinstating policies before progressive change was made, as elaborated in an abstract by Dr. Myra Mendible of Florida Gulf Coast University. Dr. Mendible continues, “the politics of stigma, I contend, maps a moral geography: it sets the contours and limits of communal obligation, disrupting affective bonds and attachments that can spur social change.” Menstrual justice is intersectional; the sphere addresses the rights of cis and trans peoples alongside BIPOC.

This complex relationship of the movement, aiming for progress for all instead of prioritizing certain groups, such as in second wave US feminism, results in carrying stigmatization associated with multiple communities of people. Despite the accompanying difficulty, the US menstrual movement is aiming to advocate correctly.

Menstrual injustice is structural intersectionality, as explained in a paper by Professor Margaret E. Johnson of the University of Baltimore, as it deals with “public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms.” This oppression affects women, girls, transgender men, transgender boys, and non-binary people. Each group has its own divisions of people with their unique experiences. But, because of the lack and suppression of discourse on bodily health, fundamental barriers exist that deprive these people from accessing the support necessary to live in an equitable society. The subsequent discrimination and harassment need to be met with sustainable change. Intense stigmatization will continue to deter progress; however, the menstrual movement acknowledges this challenge and focuses on increasing information for the general public. The work is long and hard, and any policy change and grassroots work will challenge years of culture.

Countries around the world have taken sweeping action, with New Zealand and France offering period products in public schools girls’ bathrooms free of charge. Still, certain menstruators are being left out. The unique nature of the menstrual movement in the US, with local advocacy groups working in their communities across the 50 states, is building a strong and sustainable health infrastructure. Being able to go through a normal bodily process without being shamed or barred from daily activities is a right, and it exists for all menstruators. Menstrual justice counters colonial suppression, cultural stigmatization, and unfortunate politicization. Yet, people are fighting and will continue to do so until this human right is secure.

Cover: Getty

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