Focus on working together

THE campaign to end period poverty is a long-term social initiative that involves genuine effort, collaboration across society and, most importantly, proper understanding of the issue.

The issue of period poverty was brought up during the recent controversy over a feminine hygiene company’s advertising campaign for sanitary pads. Some conservative women’s groups had called for the advertisement to be withdrawn immediately, saying it was “a dishonour to women” and was “indirectly promoting pornography”.

However, their demand was met with public backlash from the more progressive groups and individuals on social media who took to Twitter to thank the company for its boldness in broaching topics such as the stigma surrounding menstruation.

Despite the support, the company has withdrawn the advertisement from all of its advertising channels.

The controversy over the advertisement for the sanitary pads unveiled the friction between the traditional and the progressive groups, and the gap between the two is obvious. This tension is a distraction from the main agenda of resolving period poverty and may even hamper the ongoing efforts in tackling it.

Period poverty should not be trivialised to support issues that are transient and would fade away in a matter of time.

We must also remember that many of the stakeholders may not be active on social media, and so the voices we are hearing may not truly represent those whom we wish to serve.

Education about female genitalia is important and fundamental not only to address period poverty but also for the health and safety of women and children. Women and girls should be able to feel safe and comfortable with each part of their body. There should not be shame in educating women about their bodies nor should there be inherent shame imposed on female bodies.

From the reaction on social media, it can be observed that many still cannot distinguish between the vagina and vulva, be it among those who supported the advertisement or those who called for it to be withdrawn. This is a good indicator that education pertaining to the sexual reproductive system is still ineffective.

Shame and taboo relating to menstrual health and the female reproductive organs are some of the barriers in addressing period poverty and sexual abuse, including child sexual abuse, and this contributes to the bigger issue of gender inequality in our society.

In our activism, advocacy and educational approaches towards the problem, we must always take care to ensure that we do not push away the stakeholders.

The pedagogical approach must consider the actors involved and where they come from; we cannot remove shame by shaming each other. Surely, verbal abuse and attacking one another will only further divide our society and distract us from the issue at hand. This is not the way forward in addressing period poverty or gender inequality issues.

In our genuine effort to address period poverty, we must continue to work as a community that respects one another, set our targets, and focus on the issue. We must find ways to work alongside one another effectively.

Listen and learn from all groups, explain our stances respectfully, and find ways to go forward that are constructive. More importantly, the focus should be on serving the stakeholders.

FATIMAH AL-ATTAS , Period poverty researcher and advocate Department of Sociology and Anthropology, International Islamic University Malaysia

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