Part 1: Setting the context for a deeper shift
By Kathy Walkling, co-founder of Eco Femme.
Menstruation has, over the last 15 years, gone from being virtually off the radar to becoming a focal development issue receiving significant global attention, inspiring many initiatives worldwide.
And rightly so!
There is no debate as to whether there are serious negative consequences of neglecting to educate girls about menstruation while they are young. The impacts of poor menstrual hygiene practices on health as well as the knock on effect of interrupted schooling, impacting the ability for girls to realise their potential, are well documented.
There are many menstrual education curricula for teachers and lay folk who would like to embark on the journey of becoming a menstrual health educator and at face value, the what part seems clear enough. Government of India national guidelines and many development agencies are explicit about the key elements of sound menstrual hygiene management (MHM):
Elements important for menstrual hygiene management:
Less talked about, is how this education is happening
As we have deepened our work at Eco Femme over the last 10 years as menstrual educators and trainers, we have found the conventional approach of MHM education to be limited. A question that we constantly ask is “What would a menstrual education session focussed more on the lived experience of girls and women and less on biology and pads look like?”
Biology and information about pads is of course necessary, especially in a cultural context in which many girls and even women have never had these basics explained to them. We have come to believe however that rather than simply supporting girls and women to have a more hygienic, easeful and convenient experience of menstruation within the dominant culture, menstruation can be a doorway to rediscovering our embodied belonging within the larger web of life. Framed this way, menstrual education can achieve even greater gains than what is currently being settled for.
What might we do differently?
1. Menstrual educator as mentor on the path, life-long learner
Firstly, as menstrual educators, we begin with ourselves. An ongoing process of deep self-reflection is essential, as we have all, in spite of our conscious intentions and awareness, unknowingly absorbed many negative cultural messages which hinder our ability to relate to menstruation without prejudice. Collective beliefs, assumptions, and values are often invisible to us, and can be transmitted in insidious ways. Unless we are cognizant of the worldview within which our work is situated, and the ways this worldview lives in us, our efforts to work with women and girls will be undermined.
Becoming able to speak openly and confidently about menstruation requires investigating our personal stories, the messages we have taken in from the culture about our bodies and about menstruation, and how this has influenced our relationship to ourselves as women. In our experience, just engaging with this process can go a long way toward transforming how we show up as educators. The more at home we become in our own bodies, the more this will be congruently transmitted through our words and body language.
You may begin by reflecting on the following questions –
When you got your first period…
- How did you feel?
- Where were you?
- Who did you tell and who did you not tell? Why?
- What products were you given and how did you feel about using them?
- Did anything special happen?
- How would you have liked the experience to be different (if at all)?
- How aware are you of your menstrual cycle?
- Do you notice any patterns of thinking, feeling, or doing that repeat each cycle?
- Do you have strong premenstrual feelings?
- Do you notice any changes in your body or discharge?
- What do you do when you have your period (products for management, special practices, pain management?)
- Do you feel comfortable speaking about menstruation? With whom? Why? Why not?
Understanding that we are all on a journey of learning, a journey that is never finished is critical to how we relate to participants in our educational sessions. We see the menstrual educator more as a mentor, a big sister, than an expert who has “arrived” at understanding and whose only role is to disseminate information. When we remember that we are learning and growing along with those we teach, we will naturally bring an attitude of humility, open-minded inquiry, and authenticity to our work. As Nikki , one of our menstrual educators, has written about in her blog, “Every time I locate and feel my own uterus along with the girls, it is a reminder to come back to my own body.”
2. De-centering the expert and promoting peer-to-peer learning
Essential to the Eco Femme educational approach is the value placed on peer-to-peer learning. This happens naturally, as the notion of educator shifts from being a single person who holds expert knowledge, to being anyone who can pass on the knowledge gained from her own embodied experience.
We engage peer-to-peer learning throughout our sessions in the following ways: ice-breaking activities, intimate group sharing, role play, and critical group discussion.
2.1 Breaking the ice
It is not uncommon in patriarchal culture for girls and women to perpetuate misogynist judgments and behaviour among themselves. For this reason, a new group of girls or women may be reluctant to trust each other at first, especially when it comes to exploring an intimate, culturally taboo topic such as menstruation. Finding ways to break the ice by getting participants laughing and talking is important, and helps to prepare the ground for more intimate group sharing later on. A simple activity, like having the group shout out words like “periods” or “vagina,” can be a lot of fun, and establishes an atmosphere of openness and body positivity at the same time.
2.2 Intimate group sharing
As a central part of our sessions, we create a safe space for participants to share personal stories, feelings, and beliefs they have related to menstruation. To establish this, we lead by example. Before inviting personal sharing from the group, we may begin by telling our own first period story – in a way that is relatable, vulnerable, and direct. This helps to create a feeling of sisterhood, and a sense of safety for deeper sharing.
2.3 Role play
A great way to teach the basics of menstruation, one that also gives participants the opportunity to try out and demonstrate their learning, is role play. Participants can be invited to play out a scenario in which they have to explain what they would say to a younger sister who has just discovered blood in her panties and feels afraid. They can then be coached into how to provide factual knowledge as well as emotional reassurance in such a situation. As they respond, they can use language they may normally be shy to use, and name body parts that they may never have spoken aloud before. Along with deepening empathic connection, such group sharing among peers can help to normalise, validate and demystify sensitive topics and experiences that would otherwise carry shame or be held in isolation. It also increases confidence, as participants learn that their lived experience of menstruation gives them valuable knowledge to share with others. This is particularly important when female voices and opportunities for learning have been limited, as is the case in many cultural contexts.
To ensure that this process continues beyond the formal session, participants can be asked to reflect on whether they wish someone had prepared them better for the onset of menstruation, and then take a pledge to pass on what they have learned to at least one other person. This may extend to sharing with family members, in the process breaking the intergenerational silence and shame that have shrouded this topic.
Our aim with these approaches is to take menstrual education outside of the classroom, into real-life, everyday conversations. Informal learning opportunities matter at least as much as the formal classes which normally constitute menstrual health education. In our experience they also lead to a more rapid transfer of knowledge, which is possibly faster at facilitating a cultural shift. However, it should be noted that peer-to-peer learning also risks the possibility of false information being passed on. This possibility is reduced when the whole group is given the chance to reflect on and correct the information being shared.
2.4 Critical group discussion/ Harvesting group wisdom
Peer-to-peer learning can also be helpful in debunking the negative, and often erroneous, cultural messages and beliefs that may have been absorbed in relation to menstruation, and to being a woman in general. The intention, however, is not to impose foreign values or disparage traditional practices that still hold meaning, but rather to create the space for inquiring into the cultural norms participants experience and how they are affected by them, particularly those that result in unsafe practices and negative self-beliefs. For the educator, this is challenging terrain, as the temptation might be to “enlighten” the group in a top-down manner. It needs to be navigated with respect and awareness.
For example, when identifying cultural practices surrounding menstruation, someone may share about following a practice such as not feeding animals because of a belief in “bad things” happening. Careful facilitation can open up a group inquiry in which it may be discovered that someone else in the group has not followed that practice and yet “bad things” did not happen to the animal. The group itself becomes a catalyst for revealing the falsity of the shared belief without any value judgment from someone who could be perceived as an expert.
As a menstrual educator working on a topic that has been typically silenced in patriarchal cultures, it is of utmost importance that we understand the risks of a top down approach. Patriarchal conditioning has often deprived women of their autonomy and trust in their own instincts. When girls and women no longer accept that menstruation is dirty and shameful, and instead connect with it as a source of power and wonder within themselves, they may naturally feel called to make more life-affirming choices from this place of self-care and connection.
As a menstrual educator, our way of being, arising from our own inner work of deconditioning any negative bias towards menstruation, is the key to be an effective catalyst for deep change.
In our next blog in this 2 part series, we will continue to explore some specific activities for opening up the wonderful world of menstruation in a way that can transform women and girls’ experiences from the inside out. Stay tuned…