Date22 September 2021
AuthorWinkler, Inga T.

The last ten years have seen enormous developments in making menstruation matter and pushing it into the public eye through a burgeoning global movement of NGOs, civil society and community-based organizations, social entrepreneurs, international organizations, and activists. The media regularly covers menstruation. The documentary "Period. End of Sentence." has won an Oscar. Many countries have adopted national policies on menstruation. (1) Yet, despite greater openness and awareness, menstrual stigma persists, and it has profound effects on the realization of human rights across all spheres of life.

Consider that people who menstruate are often unfamiliar with bodily processes, in particular before reaching menarche, They have misconceptions and negative or ambivalent feelings about menstruation. This may cause anxiety and stress and impact their ability to learn. (2)

Consider that many menstruators hesitate to seek medical advice, and those who do are often faced with health care providers who are not trained on menstrual cycle-related conditions. The average diagnostic delay for endometriosis, a painful condition where uterine tissue grows outside of the uterus, is 7.5 years or more. (3) Testimonials of gaslighting, dismissal of menstrual pain, and odysseys through the medical system abound.

Consider that menstruators are often labelled and perceived as hysterical, not trustworthy, and unfit for decision-making. (4) They also experience menstrual pain and cramps that are dismissed as they are told to 'power through.' These stereotypes and lack of accommodations contribute to barriers women experience at the workplace and in public life, resulting in lower earnings, less responsibility, and fewer promotions.

But there is an opportunity to change all of this. With the current momentum around menstruation, it is increasingly framed as a human rights issue. We see such language in UN documents and many organizations adopt the framing of human rights. (5) Scholars have argued that "framing the issue as being about the right to safe, healthy and dignified menstruation moves it from being a negative problem to be solved" to "an affirmative principle through which the facts of women and girls' lives are acknowledged and validated." (6)

This paper seeks to briefly unpack what it means to approach menstruation through the lens of human rights. First, I will discuss the predominant way in which human rights framing is presently used and how it is at risk of instrumentalization, tokenism, and reductionism. However, I will also provide a more optimistic view and discuss what the human rights framework has to offer, building on grassroots perspectives as well as normative arguments.

Current Framing: Risks of Instrumentalization, Tokenism, and Reductionism

Many current efforts to address menstruation through the framing of human rights are at risk of instrumentalization, tokenism, and reductionism. Global organizations in particular tend to instrumentalize human rights to advance narrow, technical fixes in the form of menstrual products and hygiene interventions. At the national level, menstrual product provision is the most common policy. "We like things tangible" is how one Indian interviewee put it. (7) The water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector has proven to be an excellent entry point for addressing menstruation. Water and sanitation professionals who deal with feces and sludge management do not seem to be intimidated by a few ounces of blood, mucus, and uterine tissue. Yet, with the focus on water and sanitation comes a priority for facilities and products. These are perceived as quick material fixes to address menstrual needs. I do not want to dismiss the need for something to catch the flow, but the barriers many people face are far more complex and cannot be overcome by a piece of cotton or even medical-grade silicone in menstrual cups alone. What remains under-addressed are the impacts of menstrual stigma on education, work, health, and other human rights.

The use of human rights framing also tends to be tokenistic. Documents and organizations use the frame of dignity, but focus narrowly on ensuring privacy and cleanliness, eschewing a more fundamental understanding of dignity as agency and autonomy. The kits with essentials distributed in humanitarian emergencies are called 'dignity kits.' They include underwear, soap, and menstrual pads--presented as ensuring dignity. This theme also...

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