Period power? Ideas for intervening in menstrual poverty

By Tracy Morison & Sheralee Wootton, August 2019

Recently we observed Menstrual Hygiene Day, an annual awareness day on 28th May initiated in 2014 by the German-based NGO WASH United to shine a light on menstrual hygiene management (MHM). Specifically, this day seeks to publicise ‘period poverty’: the lack of access to adequate menstrual products faced by many in low income countries and, it is becoming increasingly apparent, by poorer women1 in rich countries. The movement’s vision is:

“…to create a world in which every woman and girl is empowered to manage her menstruation safely, hygienically, with confidence and without shame, where no woman or girl is limited by something as natural and normal as her period”.

The advent of day like Menstrual Hygiene Day, alongside growing global critique of the period-related challenges and stigma faced by women, would seem to mark a turning of the tide. Abandoning blushing euphemisms about “Aunt Flo’s visit” or “the curse”, such frank and open conversations—about periods, the taxing of menstrual products, shame, and stigma—are long overdue.

Yet, as critical scholars we know that it is important to reflect upon the nature of the conversations that we have. What are our assumptions? What is un/sayable? Who is left out? This is precisely what Chris Bobel does in her recent book The Managed Body.[1] She productively troubles the language of ‘menstrual hygiene management’ (MHM) exemplified in the quote above, which dominates conversations and frames interventions into period poverty in the Global South and, we would argue, beyond.

Bobel demonstrates how the MHM discourse still potentially represents menstruation in appropriately sanitised, deodorised ways. Though menstruation is depicted as natural, it is still potentially shameful. The central notions of hygiene and dignity rest upon the successful “management” of menstrual bleeding largely through the consumption of specialized (single-use) “hygiene” products and pharmaceuticals that conceal or contain bleeding. In fact, Bobel remarks that

“the language of menstruation, especially in the Global North, is a language of menstrual care materials”.

Importantly, successful MHM allows girls and women to sanitize, civilize, and contain our “chaotic”, “leaky” bodies, making them fit for public spaces. Thus, what we are actually witnessing, is not so much a turning of the tide, but an “historical shift from the invisible menstruating woman to invisible menstruation”, as Victoria Newton argues in her book Everyday discourses of menstruation.[2]

The potential effects of the dominant MHM discourse were made evident to us in our qualitative study with schoolgirls experiencing period poverty in a low income community in Aotearoa New Zealand.[4] All of the participants had been referred to us by school nurses and teachers because of ongoing lack of access to menstrual products. Nevertheless, girls appeared reluctant to talk about their experiences, downplaying them as one-off events or disclosing incidents that had happened to others instead. Rather, they spent a great deal of time representing themselves as hygienic and competent menstrual managers.

Making sense of this as we analysed their stories, we noticed how the ideal of respectable femininity–embodied in proper menstrual hygiene management–acted as a regulatory norm, restricting what was sayable by participants. Admitting to failed menstrual management it seemed was too risky. Instead, if the girls wished to maintain a socially desirable identity, then they were obliged to construct gender identities that adhere to an ideal of respectable femininity that rests on “a set of standards that exclude evidence of bodies being bodies, especially when those bodies are female”. [1]

Our participants’ reluctance and silences became even more understandable when we considered that all of our participants claimed indigenous heritage and identified as either Maori or part-Maori. Women of color and those from the working class “are constantly challenged to perform respectable forms of femininity in order to avoid shame”[3] and are more likely to be labelled as dirty, disgusting, and unladylike for failing to uphold the (white middle-class) standards of respectable femininity.

We believe that findings like this can be helpful when intervening in menstrual poverty. First, it is important to recognize the limitations of the current discourses available for young women to talk about menstruation and their own experiences in this area. The dominant discourse of MHM, as Bobel also notes, simply “accommodates menstrual stigma by promoting the containment of menstruation”. Yet, if we wish to disrupt the stigma associated with menstruation, then it is imperative that interventions problematize the construction of menstruation as a hygiene crisis or problem. Interventions must be coupled with feminist advocacy and education that challenges such sexist assumptions about women’s bodies.

Second, it is important for interventions to appreciate the intersectional character of, what we have termed, “the politics of disgust” and to acknowledge precisely what is at stake for already socially marginalized young women with compromised means to “correctly” manage menstruation. Bobel has raised this point in relation to the Global South, arguing for an intersectional gender lens that recognizes the ways that “gender identities are complicated by race, ethnicity, class/caste, sexuality, and religion” [1] and other identity markers. Our findings support the need for such an approach and indicate its necessity also for women in the Global North, who live on the economic, social, and political margins and who, due to their marginalized status, may be especially vulnerable to stigma within the reigning politics of disgust.


[1] Bobel, C. (2019). The managed body: Developing girls and menstrual health in the global south. Boston, MA: Springer International Publishing.

[2] Newton, V. L. (2016). Everyday discourses of menstruation: Cultural and social perspectives. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

[3] Laverty, L. (2017). Shame, disgust and the moral economies of young women’s sexual health in the North of England. In P. Kelly & J. Pike (Eds.), Neo-liberalism and austerity: The moral economies of young people’s health and wellbeing (pp. 179–195). London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

[4] Wootton, S. & Morison, T. (Forthcoming). Menstrual management and the negotiation of failed femininities: A discursive study. Women’s Reproductive Health.


  1. Women are not the only people who menstruate; although they do comprise the largest group who do and who may seek to use menstrual products and experience related stigma.

About the authors

Tracy Morison is a a feminist health psychologist, teaching Health Psychology in the School of Psychology at Massey University, New Zealand. She is an Honorary Research Associate in the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction research programme at Rhodes University, South Africa. Working in the areas of sexual and reproductive health, gender, and sexualities, Tracy draws on critical and feminist theories and qualitative methodologies, especially discursive approaches, in her research. Her most recent co-edited book, Queer Kinship, appeared earlier this year (Morison, Lynch, & Reddy, 2019, Unisa Press/Routledge). She supervised the project on which this blog is based.

Sheralee Wootton holds an MSc in Health Psychology from Massey University, with a particular focus on sexual and reproductive health. Her thesis, on which this blog is based, centred on the reproductive rights of young women experiencing menstrual poverty. Shraleee has experience in developing and leading sexual health initiatives within education and community settings on the East Coast of New Zealand. Currently, she works as a Sexual Violence Prevention Coordinator for the community-based organisation WellStop, managing a team of facilitators to deliver an education at the high school level aimed at sexual violence prevention.  Prior to this she worked as the Sexual and Reproductive Health Promotion Advisor for the Tairāwhiti District Health Board, where she delivered comprehensive sexual education, advised on SRH health promotion strategies, and prepared regional reports for the Ministry of Health.

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