Menstrual Health in the Media

Date: June 18, 2019
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“I talk about menstrual health everywhere I go now. Participating in the Gender Links Journalism Training made motivated me to view things from a new lens and let go of certain privileges. It is a very important subject for me. As a woman, I can afford pads, but what about others? Walking down the road, whenever I see a homeless woman, the first thought that runs through my mind is how can she afford menstrual care every month. After all, she is a woman like me.”

Kovillina’s interest in menstrual hygiene was fueled during a field-trip at Pointe-aux-Sables, where she was covering the establishment of a Youth Center. During that process, one of the stories which stood out was that some of the girls there did not even know what a pad is. While that revelation impacted her, it was ephemeral. It was only months later, when she attended a workshop organized by Gender Links, that her interest gained magnitude. At the workshop, they discussed LGBTQI+ along with Sexual & Reproductive Health and Rights. While Kovillina knew about LGBT rights, her knowledge of Queer and Intersex rights was blurry. As she highlights, “Learning about the Queer and Intersex aspect of LGBT rights not only broadened my knowledge but also helped me develop a sense of empathy towards them. If as a journalist, I am so sheltered by the struggles our LGBTQI+ community goes through, then I cannot imagine how oblivious the public must be.”

One aspect that struck Kovillina during the training is that, in an effort to shed light on any discrimination, journalists actually perpetuate that inequality even more. For instance, during an interview, addressing the respondent as a gay man, instead of just a man single out that person’s sexual orientation and can make him prone to potential homophobic behavior. Hence, she describes that experience not only as a pivotal point of her research but of her daily life as well: to prevent discrimination under the guise of empowerment. As journalists, they have a responsibility to transmit information, but circumstances do arise when they submit erroneous information, unintentionally of course. However, this happens because they are not well informed and have very vague background knowledge about the subject in question.

The training provided by Gender Links gave her a background on the subject so that she could better address the topic. Kovillina shares, “as a journalist, my job is to inform people, to talk to them, hear their stories, and make their stories heard so that others going through the same situation can solicit some kind of support. I play the role of an electrician, making little connections here and there, but sometimes these little connections are essential for circuits to function. Hence without any interaction with Gender Links, it would have been difficult to do my job effectively.” In fact, Kovillina underscored that the media-monitoring part of the training helped her bring a Gender dimension, not only to her work but also to her life in general.

Deeply moved by the menstrual struggles of women and their heartbreaking stories all over Mauritius during the training, Kovillina then decided to address that issue. She shares how her research drove her to face a gruesome but often overlooked reality, that some girls or women have limited to no access to hygiene facilities, let alone sanitary products. “Rs40 for a pack of pads. Some may ask, what’s in Rs40? But, these 40 rupees are what prevent menstrual infections, and ensure proper menstrual hygiene,” she reveals, underscoring that many women in Mauritius still use all sorts of alternatives to sanitary products, for instance, socks, old clothes, newspaper, or even ashes. Wanting to provide different perspectives on menstrual health, she interviewed an NGO as well as students and scholars from University of Mauritius.

“It’s true that we cannot change the world in one day,” Kovillina shared while reminiscing her conversations with different local changemakers. She especially highlighted, being fascinated with how, the new generation, especially with the Padman Challenge initiated at the University of Mauritius, shows their initiative and seems to want to effect change.” She shares that, “it is heartwarming to see a guy taking a picture with a pad and posting it on Social Media.” The general notion around menstrual health and sanitary products is that they are women’s issues. Hence, men tend to shy away. But with the new generation, notably with the Padman Challenge, many men are coming forth, and embracing this issue, effectively highlighting that it is not only women’s but also a men’s issue.  She also acknowledged that some people might ridicule such initiatives. But, when subject to the same situation, when their wives, sisters, are daughters or female relatives are the ones directly affected, they will inevitably ask themselves, what can I do?

While it is difficult to change the mentality of the older generations, Kovillina admits that “the more our current generation talks about it, the more it will be normalized. And, our future generations can address different discriminations of the issue, instead of fighting to normalize dialogue around menstrual health.” She also highlights the need to keep the conversation alive- not only hype it up during World Menstrual Day as a lot of magazines and newspapers have done by publishing their articles during this occasion this year. Addressing her work with NGOs, Kovillina highlighted ‘The Ripple Project’, which distributes pads to women’s shelters and homeless women. However, the testimonial of a volunteer at ‘The Ripple Project” divulges that the Mauritian population is either too lazy or reticent to help. The volunteer shared that a lot of people are willing to give money, but not to buy essentials and donate. She highlights that their NGO is not seeking that kind of money- instead of money, if the donors went to the supermarket, bought a pack of pads, saw its cost, then they would live the experience and would be an active contributor to others’ lives, not a passive one.

Determined to change that specific mindset, and drag people out of their oblivious bubbles, Kovillina came up with her article to increase visibility and motivate people to engage in direct interactions with those in need. When asked about whether this procedure of collecting and redistributing sanitary products is sustainable, it took a lot of hesitation, before Kovillina replied that, “Of course, depending on donations is not sustainable, but it does help in the short term.” Since, in case of a hypothetical situation whereby the influx of pad donations decreases drastically or stops, the NGO will be crippled in a certain way. While she admitted that her article does not discuss alternatives or completely sustainable methods, the NGO is question has future plans to provide these women with materials to manufacture their own menstrual cups, also empowering them, instead of just handing a pack of pads to them. She also shared the story of a man in India, who created a “Pad Machine” for women to produce their own pads. Kovillina hence, emphasizes that her follow-up article will address such intricacies, especially going through the stories of incarcerated women in depth, and identifying the uses of such Pad Machines in Mauritius.

However, Kovillina’s journey was not paved with roses. Advocating for an article on menstrual health in a room full of men was the first taboo and barrier that she had to shatter. While her director agreed on the idea, he initially suggested including the article in the “Health” section of the newspaper, covering traditional tips and tricks about menstrual health. But Kovillina stood firm on her point and insisted for the article to be included in the economic section, sharing that, “menstrual health is an important aspect of women’s lives, who equally contribute to the economy. Hence, Period stigma is, albeit indirectly, still hurting the economy.” When she finally received a green light, resistance concerning the title cropped up. The editorial secretary opposed the use of the word “sanglant” (signifying bloody) in the title, fearing it would “wage war” with conservative readers. But Kovillina stood her claim, explained the importance and relevance of the title to not only represent the article but also the crude reality of the lives of certain women. Effectively, after reading the article, the editorial secretary gave in. However, the graphic designer, again, expressed the same disapproval of the title and brought his concerns forth to the Editor. However, after a discussion, once again, a tiny victory, the name remained untouched and the article was successfully published!

On the personal front, Kovillina shares that her journey from researching to finally publishing the article on Menstrual Health was paved with different forms of enlightenment along the way. The article did not only mold the way she previously viewed things, but also impacted her immediate surroundings. She recalls a male colleague coming up to her and thanking her for addressing menstrual health from a bold perspective, instead of the usual “tips and tricks” one. Her mother, in contrast, agreed to Kovillina’s writing, but at the same time viewed it as normal for people being unwilling to spend Rs40 on a pack of pads. As Kovillina shared, her mom said to her, “Of course Kovillina, people will not spend Rs30 to buy a pack of pads. Because, in her times, in her generation, people used cloth during their menses. But, I do agree with you, using newspapers, old socks, and even ashes do not only cause infections but are also lethal.”

The article helped Kovillina to admit a lot of things to herself- especially the privilege she had in living in such an eased society. Some of the stories, painted the truth of menstrual health in Mauritius in such a raw way, that she could not share those, afraid of the taboo it could generate with the newspaper and her name. She admits fearing to be part of the taboo, and in a form of self-censorship, refused to include that example. However, she revealed that she promised herself to include those stories in her follow-up article, depicting the situation as it is, without sugarcoating. Kovillina shares, that in life, “one should be happy, driven and passionate about whatever they are pursuing.” She recollects a similar time when she dropped Law & Management to pursue a bachelor’s degree in French, as the best decision of her life. Similarly, she is as driven about making Menstrual Health a right, and not a privilege for only a counted few. Given her passion, love, and dedication for the subject, she does not hope but rather knows that she can help to bring the voices of women forth, and altogether they will achieve their prime aim.

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