The next battlefront for gender justice is a bloody one: the culture and the politics of menstrual care. That’s because the seemingly banal matter of menstruation is giving rise to a movement for “period equity,” turning a bodily process freighted with social burdens into an economic-welfare issue intrinsic to women’s enfranchisement.
There has been a surge of demands for investments in feminine hygiene, focusing on situations where women face financial and cultural barriers to obtaining basic sanitary products: New York City recently launched one of the country’s first initiatives to provide period-product dispensers in public schools—so women can avoid the trouble of having to specially request pads during class—along with subsidized supplies for menstrual hygiene in the city’s homeless shelters and jails. Congress is considering national prison-reform legislation focused on women that includes guaranteed access to products for menstruation, along with gynecological and personal-hygiene care.
Though such policies seem absurdly basic, talking about menstruation—an issue that got massive publicity when Princess Meghan Markle promoted period justice worldwide—disrupts deeply ingrained patriarchal taboos and amplifies the demand for women’s dignity in every arena of life.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a lawyer and advocate leading a national campaign for period equity, says starting with something as small as a period is an excellent segue into an array of gender-justice issues, because periods impact “all of the things that make it really hard just to live your life and be fully present and participatory in our society, whether it’s school, whether it’s just walking down the street, whether it’s the ability to go to work…the real-life impact right here and now of managing that. For people for whom a lot of the things we take for granted are challenging, menstruation is an exponential burden.”
Globally, from draconian menstrual-banishment rituals to a lack of decent hygiene in schools, period-inequity poses significant barriers to women’s educational and social advancement across the Global South. A survey of Sri Lankan girls found that 60 percent of female students are kept out of school by their parents during menstruation. Reflecting gaps in gender-aware health education, three-quarters of girls in Nairobi’s Mathare slum reported not understanding even when to expect their periods. But the real barrier is internalized, culturally ingrained shame. The majority of mothers in India, according to one survey, “consider menstruation dirty.” Studies on girls in Afghanistan, Bolivia, and Iran indicate that because of widespread myths that link periods with contamination or disease, girls are often pressured to abstain from bathing and everyday social activities. Bangladeshi girls reported being deterred from sharing spaces with men and boys or exercising. Studies by Wateraid show that period bleeding triggers dietary deprivation in Pakistan, including “not eating spicy food, eggs, beef and fish”—taboos that, ironically, might precipitate real health risks.