Hannah Jayne Robinson, Graduate, Bachelor of Engineering
Premise of the Study:
As someone who menstruates, menstrual taboos have had an influence on my life since I reached menarche; whether that was referring to menstruation by codenames such as the “time of the month,” or hiding my menstrual products from others (specifically males). However, I never thought I’d be trying to challenge or explore this stigma as part of my Engineering degree.
When research titles were released and menstrual taboos featured as one of the topics available, I was intrigued to say the least. Especially when Dr Barrington explained the relationship between engineering and menstrual health. After choosing the topic, I then had to begin establishing a link between current menstrual taboos and the effect the stigma has on waste disposal routes.
Over the past decade there has been an increase in the quantity of research relating to menstrual health, partly due to the topic being recognised as a global health concern. Yet the research has focused on attitudes surrounding menstruation and ways menstruators* manage their periods. Currently, there is very little research surrounding what people do with their used products, why they choose to take that route, and what effects that has on a person both physically and mentally.
In order to understand the links, I carried out a systematic review of academic literature. After screening articles and deciding which were relevant (based on those that included data on both menstrual taboos and disposal behaviours), 39 articles were identified. Using NVivo (a thematic coding programme), I was able to code certain themes in the academic materials to understand the differing patterns across countries, cultures, and communities.
It should be noted that for this study, I chose not to specify a country or income level as I wanted to create a global review of disposal behaviours, the first time this has been done.
Education directly impacts how menstruators choose to dispose of products. Some girls have a very low level of knowledge surrounding menstruation due to a lack of teaching in school and a lack of discussion in the household. In these circumstances, menstruators often don’t understand the implications of throwing used pads in rivers or flushing products down toilets. However, lack of knowledge isn’t always what results in these disposal patterns. Girls often know that the above behaviours are problematic for health, the environment, and sanitation systems, meaning there is a disjoint from what menstruators know, how they want to dispose of items, and what their practices actually are.
Inaccurate information and harmful beliefs also have an effect on disposal patterns. Some menstruators are worried that if they dispose of used menstrual products in the open (and people see them), they may become infertile as others might perform black magic on them. Other studies show that a proportion of fathers assumed that after menarche, their daughters were sexually mature and ready for marriage; because of this, many girls hide their periods (and everything associated with them) for as long as possible in order to remain ‘children’ and not ‘women’.
Physical restrictions imposed on menstruating girls around the world highly affect disposal too. These barriers can often be hard to break, as they are part of traditional beliefs, culture, and religion; the cultural endorsement of taboos keeps menstruation a private affair. In terms of physical restrictions, if girls are separated from their community (e.g. through Chhaupadi – a Western Nepali practice where women are isolated from their family in a shed/out building for the duration of their period), their disposal methods are limited to what and where they can go within their allowed boundaries.
Menstrual taboos and disposal patterns are irrevocably interlinked across the globe; just because a disposal option is available doesn’t mean it will be used. Several incinerators have been built on school premises in Uganda, but the implementation and take-up were not successful. They were placed away from the toilets, so girls didn’t want to be seen going into them, and although there were disposal buckets inside the toilets, no management scheme existed for transferring the material from the bins to the incinerator.
There are two main issues with disposal of menstrual products: girls feel embarrassed, and too uncomfortable to use new methods, and current methods of disposal have their own issues associated with them.
There are several key themes that influence the way menstruators dispose of their products. My grounded theory suggests that the matter is intersectional: there is not one sole variable that affects someone’s choice of disposal route. Women’s disposal patterns correspond to their location, religious beliefs, income, access to sanitation systems, access to products, and the type of product, among other factors. Within this, the strongest factor linked with disposal was identified as the fear of exposing girls’ menstrual status.
I identified this fear as having three major components: the fear of being teased/bullied by male peers in the community, the fear of ‘witchcraft and infertility’, and the fear of ‘becoming a woman’. It is the stigma around menstruation and its resulting fear that needs to be challenged in order for girls to feel safe during their period.
Thoughts, Reflections and Future Plans:
I really enjoyed this research project, but there were challenges along the way. I spent a lot of time convincing 3rd year colleagues that menstrual health was actually of concern to engineers. At times, the work had an emotional toll, especially when writing and reading about underage marriage, mental health concerns, and physical abuse.
The topic made me think about something that, prior to research, I’d almost written off as something “natural, but annoying”. Doing this research made me aware of how little there is written about this topic and the harmful reality that some menstruators face every month. We need to address the stigma face-on to ensure that girls everywhere have access to safe methods of disposal for themselves and the environment.
I’m aware that at the moment menstrual health management is a topic on which I have only began to skim the surface, but there are so many possible avenues which are still open to explore. At present, Dr Barrington and I are turning my research project into a journal article, and I’ve just started my PhD in the Water-WISER EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Leeds, where I hope to continue menstrual health management as the theme of my research over the next 4 years.
I hope I can begin to understand waste disposal patterns in more detail, as well as comprehend the complex differences between knowledge and practice. I want to show that the taboo and the stigma surrounding menstruation is present in every country, not just those with lower incomes.
* I chose to use the word ‘menstruator’ in this article as I wanted to use terminology that I believed covered all those who menstruate. My undergraduate dissertation was a global review of practises, and included information on those that don’t identify as women (for example trans-men); I was solely looking at the practises and disposal methods of those who menstruate, as opposed to looking at the effect of menstruation on women. My intention was not to ‘erase biological sex’ but simply to cast a wide net for research to understand global trends in practices.