By Emma Shakir
Women account for nearly half of the world’s population with an estimated 52% being of reproductive age. Menstruation is a natural biological phenomenon, yet many of those who menstruate experience discrimination and social exclusion in countless societies, including in developed countries. Researchers who study people’s attitude towards menstruation still find evidence that people view menstruation as a secretive, shameful topic and menstruating women as impure, polluting and disgusting.
In response to women’s empowerment movements and working towards the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), theWater Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sector led on a global campaign on 28th May 2014, marking the first Menstrual Hygiene Day. This brought together organizations from the public, private and voluntary sector to promote good menstrual health management, shape period friendly policies and speak out against menstrual stigma in collaboration. Menstrual campaigns emphasise all women have faced menstrual stigma. Online platforms assume that those joining the period conversation have a good understanding of menstrual stigma and how it impacts on women’s well-being and society. However, through my research I have found that although menstrual campaigns are thriving online and gaining mainstem media attention, they are operating without a tailored approach. This has the potential to exclude people that are not digital savvy, have language barriers, are not part of any online community or may be too embarrassed to join in on the discussions.
Since the launch of Menstrual Hygiene Day in 2014, we are approaching May 28th for the fifth year to discuss menstrual issues. I chose to do my final year dissertation looking into the effectiveness of menstrual health campaigns in engaging with British Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women and how stigma is viewed by this group. My research informs the SDGs number 5 on gender equality and goal number 10 on reducing inequalities.
Mainstream activism into women’s menstrual experiences place ‘women’ as a standalone category and does not take into consideration minority women’s intersecting identities or their socioeconomic status. Research shows the BAME community are the most vulnerable and excluded segment of society. This means they are at higher risk of period poverty, menstrual stigmatization, and underrepresentation in discussions regards to menstrual health issues.
I conducted research on a small sample of BAME women living in and around London, who participated in a survey and one-to-one interviews. My findings show that one of the main reasons of BAME women’s lack of engagement in period activism, was to do with not knowing about period campaigns or why they are taking place. 66% of BAME women have never heard about any menstrual campaigns and an overwhelming 92% have never engaged in one. As a result, BAME women are unaware of the issues and challenges that are impacting on women’s and girls’ lives. Having tailored programmes and projects for BAME communities can bridge the gap in awareness about menstrual issues.
Campaigns need to consider women’s understanding of menstrual stigma along the lines of religion, race, ethnicity, and age that impact on their lived experiences and the value of a woman within their community and wider society, so that they can play a supporting role in dismantling stigma for everyone. Research into menstrual stigma carried out by scholars show that period shame, myths and misconceptions are passed on generationally. More emphasis needs to be given by campaigns to bringing these women together and opening up a dialogue. A gender mainstreaming approach needs to be considered due to differences in BAME women’s cultural and religious backgrounds. This can help understand how to also engage the men in the conversations.
In regard to the taboo associated with periods, 70% said their community view menstruation in a non-discriminatory way, suggesting menstrual stigma within the BAME community is significantly lowered. However, my findings show a correlation between menstrual campaign awareness to be low, concern for menstrual health issues to be low, engagement rates in period campaigns to be very low at 92%, and the number of BAME women that think their community perceive menstruation in a positive or neutral way very high at 70%. This low awareness, low concern, low engagement, and high optimism for their communities’ attitude highlights several key issues:
Firstly, it is a product of the lack of awareness regards to the issues and stigma facing women. BAME women’s understanding of what menstrual stigma means in the wider society may be limited. Their challenges of menstrual issues being influenced by other factors of their identity can result in an automatic exclusion from mainstream conversations which are mainly online. Campaigns need to build capacities at a community level as there is a clear lack of awareness of period stigma by this group.
Secondly, the finding shows the exclusion of BAME women in the gender equality agenda. By not engaging in period activism, as shown in my research, BAME women have lowered chance of being beneficiaries of women empowerment and citizens of an equal society politically, economically and socially.
Finally, my findings advocate for more focused research into the understanding of period stigma in relation to culture, religion, patriarchal structures, and matriarchical structures within different minority communities. This can inform NGOs and other menstrual health actors how to tailor their delivery and messages for social change and ensures no one is left behind.
Period campaigns engagement with BAME groups need to be different. Better awareness of stigma needs to be disseminated through grassroots community outreach work. This can be done by direct partnership with BAME community organizations who are the gatekeepers to their community, who can lead on the awareness campaigns. This approach has a better chance of success through partnership work with religious and cultural institutions. In this collective effort we can change the way we think about women and their bodies and work towards removing inequalities.
Emma is a social science undergraduate student who has completed an interdisciplinary degree in BA (Hons) International Development with NGO management at the University of East London (UEL). She has over 10 years of work experience, working with women empowerment and women’s health. Her recent work had been with UEL as a researcher in India on the role of dignity in menstruation. Her dissertation research explores how BAME women perceive menstruation and if they are aware about the menstrual activism that is happening around the world including in the UK.