Menstrual Hygiene Day: Creating art from stigma

Today, World Menstrual Hygiene Day turns 5, after being initiated by a German NGO in 2014, to raise an important issue to public consciousness.

The connection between stigma and breakdown in access

As per a report published in 2019, 663 million people lack basic access to safe water and 2.4 billion people lack adequate access to basic sanitary conditions. It also goes on to estimate that half a billion (!) women do not have protected spaces for basic, everyday sanitation. Governments, non-profits, and several businesses dealing in sanitation products, have since championed the cause on a larger scale.

The lack of facilitites and access for women and other menstruators to have a safe period adds to the alarming scale stigmatisation of periods that persists well into the 21st century!

The Indian period ecosystem has long functioned on shame and focuses on isolating the menstruating woman. This exacerbates their condition by creating a distinct void that prohibits them from talking about their periods with others. Till today, about 46% women are not aware of sanitary pads (the most popular option for menstrual sanitation in India) and where menstruation really occurs. One of this years’ Oscar winners (Best Short Documentary), Period. End Of Sentence., addresses this lack of education head-on by employing many women in a village in Northern India to make cheap sanitary napkins. The film is 26 minutes, and well worth your time.

That this day has been decreed only after 2014 is an indicator of the extent of stigmatisation. The lack of period conversation and education creates several problems in subtle way—from lack of clean, public toilets, to the well-known (albeit well-ignored) phenomena of girls skipping school during their period across the country, to a complete vacuum in terms of seriousness and concern about women’s period health in the formal healthcare system. The price barriers, the pink tax, the lack of sustainable menstrual hygiene products, these are all pertinent questions for the future.

The role of art

Today, there is a rising a crimson wave of period education and normalisation in the West, that is being led by the menstrual art movement. Artists like folk-pop singer Lucy Peach from Perth, Australia, focus on creating shows and artistic experiences that de-stigmatise the period and help women understand their cycle more intimately. Her talks been featured on the TED platform and she has been outspoken about it in various interviews.

In a video interview on Monday, May 27, she spoke about the several principles of period self-care and the need to embrace menstruation for the gift of creation that it is. She talked about the need for people to become more understanding of their women employees, encouraging them to keep their own pace while making deadlines and scheduling meetings. She asks women to chart their cycles to get in sync, and talk to a support group and other women to focus on their physical and emotional states through the 28-day cycle, which comprises of not just the menstrual period, but also the ovulation stage, and the stages of preparation that precedes them both.

Canadian poet Rupi Kaur’s recent issue with Instagram taking down her period positive post stirred up a controversy, which led to the debate of whether menstrual blood has a place in uncensored pictures, let alone aesthetics. Her picture has since been restored to public purview.

Many artists are making active use of the period blood as a tool to bring viral attention to shareable pieces of art, so as to break the taboo surrounding it.

Sarah Levy’s Donald Trump painting with period blood was a direct response to his comment on Megyn Kelly in a 2015 TV debate. As Levy told USA Today: “I was outraged that he was basically using women’s periods not just to avoid a political question but also to insult her and all women’s intelligence.” Menstruation and the emotional struggles have sidelined women in a man’s world for too long.

From Josefin Persdotter’s tampon earring to Vanessa Dion Fletcher’s “Own Your Cervix”  to anonymous Middle Eastern artist Saint Hoax’s Disney-based period artwork, the world is seeing periods in a new light and this body of art creates the opportunity to discuss a stigma organically. It has the power to cut language barriers and inspire world-over, and maybe with time, grow better platforms to catalyse menstruation and sanitation policy that makes periods more safe, enjoyable, and less-life threatening.

Suradha Iyer is a writing analyst at Qrius

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