Moon CupEver-alert Liz Kissling drew my attention to this post on Nicholas Kristof’s blog (he’s the co-author of Half the Sky – check it out)

Kristof picked up on the does-menstruation-keep-girls-out-of-school buzz that researchers and on-the-ground development workers have been asking for some time. This is the same link that opportunistic P&G picked up in 2007 with the launch of their cause marketing campaign “Protecting Futures.” The campaign involved Always-brand pad distribution, school bathroom construction and health education, yet, as far I can tell, “Protecting Futures” has ended with a whimper…I can’t find a thing about it on the web, save dated references.

Maybe the campaign has slipped into obscurity because the girls lack commercial products–girls miss school causal connection is being weakened by research like the study cited by Kristof.

Researchers Emily Oster and Rebecca Thorton supplied girls with menstrual cups (note: not single use pads) and measured whether their use of cups had an effect on school attendance and grades. Nope, they found, makes no difference; the girls with and without cups missed about the same number of days and performed about the same in school.

In a way, their findings didn’t surprise me.

Girls have been managing their flow since, well, there were girls, and I bristle at the implication that their lack of access to single use commercial products was high on the global south wish list. It always seemed like a version of those ignorant primitives will never join the 21st century until they consume more stuff line of thinking that motivates (ethnocentric) global north “do-gooders” (and multinational corporations)

But, from my living room in the US, steps away from a washing machine/dryer and a reliable bathroom, I didn’t dismiss the possibility too quickly. The menstrual taboo, after all, does complicate period management when you spend the day with boys, boys who must not know what your body is up to–this takes time and energy

But here’s the thing.

Oster and Thorton DID find a menstruation-school attendance link. Menstruation DOES indeed impact school attendance, they found, in one particular way.

CRAMPS, reported the girls, keeps them home. Get this: nearly 44% of the girls cited cramping as the reason they couldn’t make it to school while they were menstruating.

CRAMPS. Sound familiar to anyone?

So that seems an invitation to find out more.

  • What kind of cramps?
  • What do the girls know about cramp prevention and management?
  • What kind of information and support do the girls need to deal with their contracting uteri so that they can get to school and stay there without sitting in at their desks doubled over in pain?

But addressing the cramp problem aint gonna be easy.

The very same pernicious menstrual taboo that mandates that girls manage (read: hide) their periods, also makes it difficult for girls to get informed and take effective action when the cramps hit.

We just don’t talk about this stuff–and that’s a silence heard around the world.

In rural Nepal and Soweto and suburban Boston and, yes, in your neighborhood, too.

Opening up the conversation about our bodies and how their work–in all their messy, often inconvenient, often mystifying complexity– gives us a chance to take control of our health and our lives.

In other words, the key to keeping girls in school may NOT be “more efficient” menstrual management, but rather, breaking the silence surrounding the body.

But we can’t expect only vulnerable girls to breach the taboo and begin asking the questions. Adult women and men, teachers, policy makers, government officials, health care workers, moms, dads, bloggers, all of us, need to get talking. In other words, those of us with some measure of privilege need to model that it is okay, even GOOD, to speak about the menstrual cycle.

That talk , of course, will sound different in different places and in different cultures. So we need to develop culturally-sensitive menstrual literacies and we need to start now.

What’s that?

Sorry. I can’t hear you.

Could you please speak up?

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