Week 19: Women and innovation (destigmatising menstruation)
In our Capstone session at uni last week, we were prompted to name some lead users*. An example did come to mind rather quickly, but I sat in silence, hesitating to put my hand up, as I listened to my classmates name the founders of Skyscanner and the likes of it.
*For context, lead users are those who:
1. have an incentive to innovate (due to the lack of commercially available options), and
2. have needs that the rest of the market will have some time later
The lead user on my mind? Women. Specifically, how our great great grandmothers dealt with periods before menstrual products were commercially available.
Back in the days, what women used during “the time of the month” differed by location — in Egypt, women used papyrus as tampons; in Greece and Rome, women wrapped lint around wood; in Japan, paper was used to absorb blood; and Native Americans made pads out of moss and buffalo skin.
It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that commercial products became available. And new inventions and innovations around menstrual products have continued since then; but so did the stigma around periods.
Across the world, girls are still put at a disadvantage in life because of period stigma, the lack of access to clean water, and period poverty.
Whilst this did improve over the years, it disturbs me how, across the world, girls are still put at a disadvantage in life because of period stigma, the lack of access to clean water, and period poverty.
According to UNICEF, around 1 in 10 African girls miss school because of their periods yearly, some even drop out, and this creates a ripple effect throughout their lives. Just finishing secondary school could mean a lower chance of child marriage, domestic abuse, and increase the chances of girls having lesser, healthier children (who are, then, more likely to get an education). In short, keeping girls in school improves their health, well-being, and the community.
As I come across these statistics, it dawns on me how reducing the global gender inequality gap goes way beyond surface level employment targets. It will need to start with debugging deeply rooted beliefs and providing better access to necessities such as clean water and affordable sanitary products. And perhaps, the start to getting there, is to make these problems more salient.
“Periods [have long] been associated with dirt, and disgust, and shame, and some might say fear,” — Jane Ussher, professor of Women’s Health Psychology at Western Sydney University
Back to that Captone session…
In my hesitation to shout out my thoughts with the pride of being a woman, my head was instead filled with phrases like “Is this appropriate?”, “Can I say this?”, “How would the class react?”…
Perhaps that was a clear sign that, despite the progress we have made in destigmatising periods (at least, in developed countries), the stigma still exists.
How many women out there continue trudging on at work, reluctant to call in sick despite shivering in cold sweat and having tight calves, a sore lower back, and a cramping uterus, just because “I’m not really sick”?
I think it’s time we championed for change in this area. And for me, I’m starting with this story.