In recent years, sanitary products have made their entrance in girls’ empowerment campaigns, with NGOs and behemoth healthcare companies advocating menstrual hygiene. In fact, May 28 has been declared as the ‘Menstrual Hygiene Day.’
While advocacy efforts that seek to enhance the well-being of girls are welcome, these campaigns construct the figure of the ‘Third World Girl’ through deficit frames, encourage consumption of particular products, and install transnational companies and experts as ideally suited to empower girls.
Societies that engage in practices around menstruation that might not involve sanitary pads or that consider it inappropriate to discuss menstruation publicly are cast as pre-modern and backward. For instance, an article in The Guardian on the Nepali practice of chhaupadi, where menstruating women observe seclusion, blames “low development rates, gender inequality, community tradition and high illiteracy” for its continuation. Similar sentiments are expressed about the practice of goakor in India.
In contrast, good consumption habits alongside education are presented as the means to empowerment. The website for one of those campaigns, Always Keeping Girls in School, for instance notes that:
For many girls from impoverished backgrounds, the onset of puberty marks a sharp decline in school attendance and could even lead to their dropping out of school completely. One of the reasons for this high drop-out [sic] rate is the lack of sanitary protection and lack of knowledge around puberty. Because they are unable to afford sanitary protection and because they don’t understand what is happening to their bodies, what should be a celebration of womanhood becomes a time of shame, embarrassment and stigmatisation with dire consequences for the girls’ education and consequently their futures. (emphasis mine)
Against this background, the multinational company emerges as a benefactor. The company has partnered with other stakeholders “to empower female learners and to keep them in school through providing them with puberty education, sanitary protection, access to educational resources and motivation to stay in school.”
It is clear from the above how transnational capital draws on feminism to further its interests and transform girls into consumers. More importantly, however, the discourse defines the needs of these girls largely in terms of limited access to scientific knowledge and the market, and provides little insight into the “customs” that it sees as unhealthy.
Practices around menstruation differ significantly based on context, and may even have different meanings. Ethnographic studies of menstrual houses show them to be sites where women exercise(d) autonomy away from the male (including the colonisers’) gaze.
Consider Wynne Maggi’s work in Pakistan with the Kalasha. In her book entitled, Our Women are Free, Maggi carefully delineates women’s community and culture within the bashali (menstrual house). She notes, “Far from being a prison in which women are separated from the community and rendered powerless to act, the structure of the institution itself contributes to women’s agency, to be part of the larger community of women, and to make personal decisions about marriage and reproduction away from the intense social pressure of village life” (page 9).
According to Maggi, women in the bashali were playful and affectionate with each other; they chatted, sang, danced, and laughed together. The bashali created an environment where they were able to discuss otherwise taboo topics. Maggi, hence, concludes that this seemingly oppressive structure in fact facilitated a sense of community.
It is important therefore that we approach other people’s cultural practices with nuance. This does not mean that we should not point out the ways in which some such practices might be oppressive, but that we must engage with them in their radical specificity.
It is unfortunate that development campaigns on menstrual hygiene erase these specificities in an attempt to create the homogenous ‘Third World Girl’ in need of saving.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 30th, 2017.