The Case for Media Sensitivity Around Menstruation

Pratyusha V V

As an enterprise that works in the space of menstruation, Boondh advocates for sensitive and inclusive news coverage around menstruation. Through the campaign #PeriodsandPatrakaars, the goal is to enable writers with inputs from various stakeholders (Media Houses, Journalism Students, MHH and Waste practitioners, Cis Menstruators, sports menstruators, vulnerable menstruators including trans, queer, disabled, Dalit Adivasi, prison menstruators, people living with menstrual disorders) with skills to up the quality of menstrual reporting through a reporting toolkit

If you are a journalist reporting on gender, health or sanitation, do reach out to us via twitter!

To make #ResponsibleRedReporting a reality, your inputs will add great value to this initiative. For details, write to pratyusha@boondh.co

This excerpt of suggestions has been structured based on coverage related to menstruation in news and some popular media within India and a few from outside with citation versions of the pieces as on 22nd March, 2020. The goal of these citations is only to drive a point home, problematize the content and not defame the publisher.

In a country whose media landscape is far from neutral, and heavily saturated with fake/sensational news, it becomes critical that a guideline be established for responsible use of language and rights based perspective when covering a beat as sensitive and fundamental as menstruation. A piece of news should spark conversations that help the efforts being made to destigmatize the matter and critique the perpetration of taboos.

We’ve structured this piece into 2 main categories of improvements the media can make:

Use Inclusive Language and Evidence Base

  1. Keeping Menstruators At Centre-stage In Reportage/Content About It

Several articles/videos hypothesize (cis)men getting periods or wearing period products, and sometimes explicitly laud cis men that take up initiatives to fight period poverty but don’t give such special coverage to womxn working in the space.

This perpetuates the discourse that men’s needs are more valid and it is only through juxtaposition of menstruators’ needs over men will the latter get attention.

In 2015, WaterAid released a series of ads spoofing the hypothetical scenario that we would see #IfMenHadPeriods. Converge surrounding it noted the ad’s tongue in cheek nature, as demonstrated in this excerpt from an by Mirror UK

(Source: Mirror UK, If Men Had Periods, Spoof Ad Imagines A World Where Blokes Have Menstrual Cycles)

and this one below by Global Citizen shared the perspective of the CEO of WaterAid about the series:

(Source: Global Citizen, ‘If Men Had Periods’ How Would Life Be Different)

In 2016, the #IfMenHadPeriods went viral again when gynecologist Jen Gunter started a thread with the hashtag on Twitter to highlight the sexism that is at play in keeping menstrual rights at far reach for menstruators.

However, this time around, the media coverage did a much more responsible job!

The hashtag was criticized on Twitter and subsequent media reports for not being explicit that the tag was targeted only at cis men and perpetuated the erasure of trans men’s and non binary folx experiences of menstruation.

(Source: Twitter Event, What Would It Be Like If Men Had Periods)

The Daily Beast’s article gains extra credibility because it was written BY a trans man as a personal story rather than a cis person talking on behalf of gender nonconforming menstruators.

(Source: Daily Beast, Yes Men Can Have Periods We Need To Talk About Them)

2. Inclusive, Positive Language:

Example 1 — ‘Suffers from’ versus ‘Lives with’

While most of the coverage around menstruation focusses on “hygiene”, the few articles that do talk about health and disorders, they refer to menstruators ‘living with’ disorders as sufferers, adding to the already heavy stigma around disorders as demonstrated by these articles in The Hindu and The Times of India

(Source: The Hindu, One in Five Indian Women Suffers From PCOS)

(Source: The Hindu, One in Five Indian Women Suffers From PCOS)

(Source: TOI, Over 10 million women suffer from PCOS Globally)

Considering that 20% of all menstruators live with PCOS and 10% with endometriosis etc. it is essential that we normalise this condition’s occurrence by championing narratives where menstruators find ways to cope with the condition.

It is important to use positive language in reporting about sensitive topics in order to not ostracise or blame them.

This NDTV article is a good example of a more suitable, neutral language, using words like ‘have PCOS’ or are ‘impacted’. It also sets the precedent that it is manageable, making it less daunting for a lay person to read:

(Source: Ndtv, 1 In 5 Women In India Have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Here’s What You Need To Know )
(Source: Ndtv, 1 In 5 Women In India Have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Here’s What You Need To Know )

Example 2 — ‘women’ versus ‘menstruators’

Several articles across outlets report on menstruation as a ‘women’s issue’ playing into the culture of trans erasure and lack of male stakeholder responsibility when talking about menstruation. This Huffpost article goes out of its way to invalidate gender non-conforming menstruators and erases the possibility of gender affirmative surgery by saying ‘no one can change sex’.

Besides a triggering headline, the article itself is transphobic and aggressive in tone and yet, published as a blog on a platform as widely read as HuffPost which makes one wonder how much attention editors pay to the far-reaching impact of reportage, even if Op-ed

(Source: Huffpost, Men Don’t Have Periods — Women Do)

(Source: Huffpost, Men Don’t Have Periods — Women Do)

Across several articles reviewed, it was noticed that when talking about menstruation, the subjects are always referred to as a binary word ‘women’ rather than its more inclusive alternative ‘menstruators’.

3. Sensationalism in Headlines

In a media space that is replete with sensationalism or ‘clickbait’ as a way of getting readership, reporting on menstruation is no exception. A Quint article makes a sensational headline out of a very controversial comment made by a religious leader claiming that menstruators would be born as ‘bitches’ if they cooked for husbands while menstruating.

The headline doesn’t serve the purpose of summarizing the piece and its contents, rather only acts as click bait adding no contextual value to clarify that the piece is about menstruation or that it is the ‘karma’ of cooking on period that’s being talked about.

(Source: Quint, Ladies, Karma is a Bitch, if This Swami is to Be Believed)

4. Citing Accurate Data with the Source:

In order to ensure that misinformation and taboo around menstruation is curbed, it is pertinent for the media to avoid “claiming” realities by mentioning numbers and percentages without attaching the source links below the article or hyperlinking it.

Consuming news through online spaces allows one to actively engage with what is presented. Leaving room for criticism directly influences quality research on any subject. In the case of menstruation, positions taboos in perspectives. However, most articles like the one by Outlook India below do not welcome engagement, at the outset.

(Source: Outlook article on: Are Menstrual Disorders More Prevalent In Developing Countries?)

The data heavy article explains the myth around rural girls being more affected by MHM availability with data taken from ‘a study’. Unfortunately, to get any context on these numbers, one would have to watch a Ted talk on ‘Menstrual Health in India’ delivered by the writer, Sinu Joseph.

Even Though reporters take references from wire agencies/ pre-existing articles , it is important to be accountable for what one publishes. While some articles do mention the title of the paper referred to support their narrative, some fail to mention if the paper is available for public viewing/ can only be viewed by subscribers. Like this one from Forbes India.

(Source: Forbes India, Mar 9, 2018)

Although the statistics from the Nielsen report are widely used, it isn’t made clear that the report itself, as a paper, is nowhere to be found, neither on their own website nor on any other public domain. Even this must be mentioned in the article.

(Source: Nielsen’s website, Breaking the Menstruation Taboo, 2016)

However, articles that do state that unavailability of the source do exist sparsely. An article by The Logical Indian, clearly states that the study titled ‘Sanitary Protection: Every Women’s Health Right’ is not available on any public domain.”

(Source: The Logical Indian, A Reality Check Of Menstruation In Rural India, 2017)

5. Absence of Expert Opinions

This February we witnessed sensational coverage around Swami Krushnaswarup Das’s comment on menstruating women who cook. Most of the articles published around this ended up being a platform for the retelling of Swami’s misogynist comment, like this excerpt from The National Herald.

Even after three paras of quotes, it continues.

(Source: The National Herald, ‘A Menstruation Women who Cooks Will Be Reborn a Bitch’)

There were very few articles where quotes/opinions of government officials, renowned feminists, menstruating stakeholders etc. were included. Only one of the several we read, had highlighted what a woman in the government had to say about it.

(Source: ‘This is why I don’t cook’: Twitter full of dark humor)

6. Be Critical, Hold People Accountable

Being critical of all events and testing accountability is a critical part of why the media plays the role of check and balance in the grand scheme of things. Most articles around menstruation however, are exclusively documentation — documentation of success stories and documentation of shame/superstitions in rural India. Menstruation needs critical analysis. There are stakeholders like the larger government bodies, Municipalities/Panchayats, Menstrual Health Management Researchers, Waste Management Organizations, Medical Fraternities etc. There are stories that do demand follow up and one particular account of such reportage is mentioned further into the article. However, most organisations overlook opportunities for a critical story around menstruation.

An HT Piece, for instance, talks about concerns with sanitary waste disposal, completely misses an investigative opportunity. The article clearly specifies that according to “Bio- Medical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1998” items contaminated with blood and body fluids must be incinerated or microwaved. But that is clearly not applied. While the piece has comments from researchers and environment educators, it does not take the story to the government stakeholders involved. The waste pickers are employees of the state government, questioning the authorities involved from a local level can add a lot of credibility to the story and value to readers alike.

(Source: HT, Ladies, Be Careful When You Throw Away The Sanitary Napkin)

Another instance of a follow up missed would be the coverage around installation of a sanitary pad machine in a women’s prison in Lucknow.

(Source: HT, Lucknow Sanitary Pads)

This story too is a mere documentation with no follow up to see if it is functional, a viable business model with distribution channels, but most importantly if it is being used by menstruators (prisoners, warders) in the enclosures.

Expanding The Range Of Issues Covered

1. Focus on the larger systemic gaps:

Given the digital era that we live in, the entire approach to covering stories around menstruation can be different. Newslaundry for example, takes up issues that are complex and simplifies them to great detail while not compromising on the many layers of the story. This is done by making their coverage episodic.

Menstruation as a subject always involves at least 3 layers, often more: The menstruator, The Menstrual Hygiene and Waste Management personnels, Local government that is incharge of WASH facilities that is available to the menstruator etc. According to our preliminary research, the media hardly interconnects these layers. An article by Quartz India, speaks about how sanitary napkins form the bed of a lake in a village in rural India.

(Source: Quartz, Sanitary Napkins Form the Bed of a Bathing Pond in India)

This article talks about a particular village called Chamrabad in Jharkhand. Although it states data and gets quotes from the women in the village, it simply cannot be complete without covering the WASH infrastructure, effects to the water quality, ecosystem and stakeholder responsibility to respond to the crisis in the area.

The infrastructure (sex-separated safe private/communal toilets that are menstrual friendly, disposal mechanisms, water, soaps etc.) affects the MHM in any area, therefore influencing the menstruator’s agency over which products to use. These complexities are largely missed in the mainstream media’s coverage.

2. Follow up stories that map progress:

Stories that critically follow up on initiatives mark growth. This gives one insight into how far we’ve progressed or how much further we need to go. The Print’s article that analyzes every aspect of a Central Government led scheme is one that is rare in the coverage around menstruation.

(Source: The Print, One Rupee Sanitary Pads Welcome, But Govt’s Janaushadhi Stores Often Don’t Have Them)

The article looks at the implementation of the scheme, the awareness around it and also gets comments from important stakeholders involved. These pieces are key in challenging problematic perception around menstruation and giving it a more matter of fact approach.

3. Coverage about sustainable products

If it wasn’t for initiatives/enterprises that advocate sustainable menstrual products, menstruators would be left to simply assume the merits and demerits to using menstrual products.

(Source: World Environment Day 2020: How To Be Environmentally Conscious with your periods)

Coming across pieces that advocate shift to organic products without being tagged to World Awareness Days like Environment or Menstrual Hygiene Day like the story attached above is a rarity.

(Source: Indulge, Here’s Why You Should Make A Switch to Organic Pads)

This article on TNIE’s Indulge, however, is an example of one of the very few stories that does advocacy irrespective of the external encouragement. The headline clearly points out that you should make a shift to organic products and goes explain why stating data (however, data is not attached) that state that non — biodegradable pads “can cause harm to both your health and that of the environment.” Here also, language could be “suggestive” rather than “imperative”.

(Source: shethepeople, Cloth Pads and Period Panties-Smart Women’s Menstrual Hygiene Choice)

Media hardly emphasises agency and control that menstruators can choose to exercise over their bodies through informed choices, especially with menstrual products. Media pieces demonstrated above from shethepeople often tend to patronise menstruators, especially when it comes to reporting on sustainable products. This issue is systemic as organizations that produce products are themselves not immune to aggrandizing, patronizing and marketing products as a panacea to “menstrual woes”.

The following piece is very brief and lacks commentary from a gynecologists, environmentalists among others. Excerpts ought to guide readers to use a product that suits their individual body’s needs, lifestyles and medical histories. Articles that have such content is meagre.

(Source: Indulge, Here’s Why You Should Make A Switch to Organic Pads)

3. No conversations around Policy:

For menstruators in India, the policies that govern their wellbeing is at a nil. While far and few corporations recognise paid period leaves. there are no policies in place to make menstruation a contextual need and right, for trans persons and persons with disability. The media plays a huge role in catalyzing policy changes by creating opportunities for deliberation within the public and private spheres in a society. Extending this influence to menstrual concerns will help amplify the current negligence.

(Source: Reuters, Indian Firm Offers “Menstrual leave” for Women on First Day of Period)

This article does not laud the company that offers menstrual leave, fairly so, considering that it should not be treated as a perk but a requirement. This was also an opportunity to zoom out and talk about how menstruators in India have no policy around menstruation at workplaces whatsoever, elaborating on the nuanced need policies and its consequences to unique menstruating body needs, especially premenstrually. Further invisible is the acknowledgement of such extensions to menstruators in prisons, young menstruators in schools and displaced menstruators.

(Source:BBC, ‘Period-Shaming’ Indian College Forces Students to Strip to Underwear)

The BBC article, on women being asked to strip at an educational institute in India, is a loud call alerting systemic faults. Unfortunately, the focus is always on such singular incidences, rather than questioning the larger structural negligence. There are very few stories that use a trend to point out the larger problem. Like this report on Hindu Business Line which reads, “India needs a menstrual leave policy.”

(Source: Businessline, India Needs a Menstrual Leave Policy)

The complete absence of different lived realities of menstruators (trans, non binary, Dali-Bahujan-Adivasi, Persons with Disabilities) stems from and can also be set right with critical reportage. Discussing workplace menstrual experiences as varied, unique and true to each experience is integral in pushing towards inclusive, holistic policies that go beyond accounting for workplaces/labour laws that have predominantly been designed around male bodies and their lived experiences. Episodes like this demand media’s right to hold an institution accountable post like institutional violations. There is hardly no report on follow up of this case, with redressal/punitive actions undertaken.

(Source: Sheknows, What It’s Really Like to Get Your Period in Prison)

This US based article written by a woman who served 35 years in jail, covers the poor quality of state provided napkins,monetary shortcomings, inaccessibility of medical help and inhumane treatment. Another article, written by a woman who has a physical disability covers aspects such as non disability friendly products and limited mobility. These are experiences that are yet to be covered by the mainstream media in our country.

(Source: Sheknows, What It’s Like To Get Your Period in a Wheelchair)

4. Reportage around menstrual experiences in volatile areas

The reportage around menstrual experiences in disaster management, refugee camps and politically volatile regions like Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh can be counted on the fingers. Stories that highlight the plight of menstruators under such deprived and tense circumstances is imperative to bring meaningful interventions.

(Source: DTE, Cyclone Fani: Women Left with Just One Cloth To Cover Body, Manage Menstruation)

This Down To Earth article emphasises the need for a response mechanism to be gender friendly as is the lack of it has layered consequences (compromising dignity, safety and health) on menstruators and women.

(Source: DTE, Cyclone Fani: Women Left with Just One Cloth To Cover Body, Manage Menstruation)

Reportage such as these in the mainstream media makes room for well informed response mechanisms.

(Source: BBC, What It’s Like To Have Periods And Be In a Disaster Zone)

This piece by The BBC is an instance of good reporting as it that draws emphasis on the most important concern — WASH infrastructure, especially in a disaster prone area.

(Source: BBC, What It’s Like To Have Periods And Be In a Disaster Zone)

This piece hopes to evoke and sensitize stakeholders to undertake measures to responsibly report on menstruation, with the limited examples showcased. #PeriodsandPatrakaars #ResponsibleRedReporting