The Center for the Study of Social Difference hosted a panel of professors, scholars, and activists to launch the Working Group on Menstrual Health & Gender Justice this Thursday afternoon in the International Affairs Building and share their experiences and insights on menstrual health research and education. New staffer writer and baby Bwogger Eva Sher was in attendance.
After a long day of school during a long week of classes, I was genuinely excited to spend my afternoon listening to six intelligent, tenured scholars speak about periods. No, really. I live for this.
Upon walking into the room of people engaged in quick conversation and dressed in power suits, I could feel that I was in the presence of some interesting and opinionated people. The panel proved my instincts correct. The panelists included Professor Ingla Winkler of Columbia University’s Human Rights Program, Professor Chris Bobel of the University of Massachusetts Boston, Trisha Maharaj of Columbia University’s Human Rights Graduate Program, Dr. Nancy Reame of the Columbia University Medical Center, Norma Swenson of the Our Bodies, Ourselves organization, and Vanessa Paranjothy, an Obama Foundation Scholar and co-founder of Freedom Cups. Professor Winkler gave a brief introduction for each of the panelists and then asked them questions.
A key concept that I learned from Professor Bobel, that I am planning to adopt into my daily language, is instead of simply referring to people who experience periods menstruators instead of women. Many people, including myself before the panel, first think of referring to menstruators as women in our binary society. But in reality, not everyone who experiences a menstrual cycle is female and not all females experience a menstrual cycle.
Professor Bobel shared other novel pieces of wisdom that I want to make a poster of. I’m honestly probably going to put some of them up to put on my wall. “The body is not broken. Menstruation is not a problem to be solved.” This insight really made me rethink how periods are spoken about by the public and in policy. The language used to refer to menstruation is inherently sexist, and menstrual education is almost always a side dish before the main course which is product endorsement. Menstrual products are often referred to as hygiene products. Referring to them in this way makes it seem as if periods are dirty and something to be ashamed of. Or ‘giving a menstruator the tools they need to manage their period is giving them their dignity back’ implies that that body experiencing a period did not have dignity in the first place before having possession of commercial products. Bobel pointed out that the sexism in these terms are subtle, but still very much present.
Vanessa Paranjothy shared her experience as an educator in menstrual health and activism. Paranjothy co-founded Freedom Cups, an organization that distributes non-biodegradable menstrual cups to women in underserved areas such as in Singapore, Cambodia, India, Nepal, and other Asian countries through a buy-one-get-one model. Every time someone buys a menstrual cup to use themselves, one is given to a menstruator without access to products. The organization also aims to educate people about their bodies. Paranjothy explained that she would hold hour long sessions about bodily function and structure and how to use the cup; once the session was over, the participants were free to take a cup but they were never forced or coerced into taking one. Freedom Cups works to educate menstruators in both rural and urban areas, with people including nuns, sex workers, displaced persons, and the urban poor.
Something we menstruators take for granted when we open a new box of tampons is the slip with the warning about Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). TSS is a bacterial infection that can occur when one uses a tampon with an absorbency larger than necessary or if a tampon is in the vagina for too long. Dr. Reame explained how the awareness of menstrual and reproductive health is a movement, not a moment. It can be traced back to the 1970s and ‘80s when TSS and its effects were brought to the forefront. Young adults and new mothers were coming into hospitals with their skin peeling off in sheets and dying from this syndrome that was truly not understood yet. Understanding and the education of periods have come a long way since then, but there is still more to be done.
Trisha Maharaj spoke about her menstrual research and work in Trinidad. She pointed out that it is important to not pass judgments on people of a culture that we do not fully understand. Something that she mentioned that made me laugh is that whenever she mentions to someone that experiences periods that she is involved in menstrual research, this person jumps into a story about their period. That’s #relatable because I would totally do that.
Norma Swenson, a co-founder of Our Bodies, Ourselves shared that in order to sustain the movement on menstrual health and to push towards gender justice, we must engage in conversations about it and learn from past movements.
Another thing that was truly extraordinary and made the panel even more enjoyable to listen to was the admiration and respect that the panelists had for one another. Professor Bobel referred to Swenson and Reame as her “sheroes” and that it was an honor to be on a panel with them. That is another term from Professor Bobel that I will be adopting into my language. Also, before speaking, Dr. Reame acknowledged that she went through the experience she was about to speak about alongside Swenson. And Paranjothy was speaking about her experience and started mentioning how she did not have as much experience in gender justice as other people on the panel, but Swenson assured her that her viewpoint is so important too and that she should continue her amazing work. Overall, the common respect made the environment of the panel all the more empowering.
Did this panel really just inspire me to become a Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies major? Stay tuned.
On a final note, I really want to plug Freedom Cups right now. I’m buying one, and I think it would be a missed opportunity if I didn’t include the link to their website.
Poster via Bwog Staff