What if there was a place where you could get all the info about menstruation you need, not the standard info written over 70 years ago for a biology book, nope real information on all levels: as an individual, as a menstruator, as a researcher or professional in the menstrual industry.
A platform that provides information on the entire menstrual cycle and all its aspects, the social and political issues surrounding menstruation and menstruation in different cultural contexts. A place that also offers a community, where everyone can connect – if you’re thinking menstrual utopia, then read on.
What if we tell you, this place exists? It’s called the Menstrual Health Hub, and we’re extremely proud to be part of the Founding Circle. Here’s our interview with two of the three women behind the MH Hub: Danielle Keiser and Milena Bacalja Perianes.
Ruby Cup and the people behind the MH Hub have been supporting and collaborating with each other for 5 years, so we’re super excited about presenting their story and how the Menstrual Health Hub started.
What is the Menstrual Health Hub and why do we need it?
M: The MH Hub is a global and interdisciplinary social and digital platform designed to connect and strengthen the people working on, affected by and interested in menstrual health. What this means is that we want to create a home for all menstrual health actors and practitioners around the world to come together. We know that there are an incredible amount of organizations, activists, artists, advocates, companies, policymakers, researchers in this space and we wanted a place for them to gather, connect, communicate, share best practices and be able to increase our collective impact.
We think this is necessary, because things remain separated by sectoral and geographical areas, and people keep reinventing the wheel to some extent. Rather than carve out little niches, we felt there was a need for a coordinating mechanism to bring people closer together. Ultimately, we see the hub as a tool and service for this community.
D: Exactly, it will be a new tool and service for the growing menstrual health movement. We’re working on our business model beyond a digital platform. Actually asking: “How can we make ourselves valuable with our expertise and our network to help others in this space?” So whether it’s small community-based organizations or funders – how can we help make their work more impactful? How can we help them make smarter choices or see gaps and opportunities in policy, innovation and education and also highlight the best of what’s happening?
What has been the most difficult challenge in building the MH Hub?
M: I think, at least in the early stages, it was trying to pitch a platform around a taboo topic. It’s something that we’re only recently starting to talk about and it’s still very uncomfortable to a lot of people. It’s quite difficult to ascribe value to what we do when people don’t ascribe value to the process of menstruation and the menstrual cycle. There’s not enough research or comprehension and a lot of reluctance to the topic. That’s the core challenge. But it has also provided an opportunity to go beyond and ride the wave of all of the amazing efforts taking place right now. Whether Clue, Ruby Cup, Thinx, Menstrual Hygiene Day (MH Day) – whatever the case, we’re all riding this wave together and things are changing. More and more people are dedicating their time, money, energy and research and resources to it.
It’s quite difficult to ascribe value to what we do when people don’t ascribe value to the process of menstruation and the menstrual cycle.
If you had tried to start the MH Hub 5 years ago, do you think it would have been possible?
D: Absolutely not. I think the feedback we’re getting from people is that this is exactly what’s needed right now, because there’s so much momentum around this topic thanks to so many great organizations and initiatives pushing it forward. We aim to be an impartial force that does not push a sector agenda forward.
M: To add to that, we really see ourselves helping connect small grassroots organizations. The large organisations often already have the resources and these types of platforms in place, so it’s the small community-based organizations, or activists or small companies that work directly with girls and women we feel most connected to. The big companies say they want to connect with the community but they’re reluctant to talk to us because we are still so small.
D: We have a lot of faith in the work happening on the ground by social entrepreneurs and small CBOs, whether they are making locally-produced pads or trying out a new menstrual health educational training module. By listening to their needs, sharing their work, and supporting them when needed, we seek to pull them up, creating more of a bottom-up approach to help solve challenges around menstrual health. After all, they know their community of girls and women the best.
M: You know what you just made me realize, while we were talking right now? We often see the private sector as the enemy of addressing social issues and we don’t think of the private sector as people, who are fundamentally invested in people’s well being. But from the kinds of conversations that we started having with really large corporations, they’re like: yeah, we have money, we have resources and we want to invest. We want to connect but we just don’t know how.
Do you consider yourselves as menstrual activists?
M: I started out as a women’s rights activist and I was implementing programmes in Malawi and Tanzania around sexual and reproductive health rights. At the time I wasn’t specifically implementing menstrual health projects. But menstruation is the beginning of a lot of sexual and reproductive health outcomes and the more I started talking to people and communities, I kind of realized that the onset of menarche in some ways is the beginning of the end for a lot of girl’s lives. The stories that I heard in the field had so many similarities with my own story when growing up. Yes, I had access to toilets, water and products, but the internal part of getting your period: the shame, the silence, the secrecy, not understanding your body, the discomfort – it’s something that you hear anywhere you go in the world.
Menstruation is the beginning of a lot of sexual and reproductive health outcomes and the more I started talking to people and communities, I kind of realized that the onset of menarche in some ways is the beginning of the end for a lot of girl’s lives.
The critical thing is the universality of how menstruation comes to define ourselves. So with time, that passion for women’s rights has become menstrual activism. But I think menstrual activism represents something much broader, which is the ways in which women are disempowered in their bodies, the ways in which we have a lower position in society because of something so natural to who we are.
D: I became a menstrual activist through seeing a video from Mooncup. Have you seen the cup vs. tampon rap battle? I’ve always been in love with advertising. It’s what I studied and have always been interested in: the intersection of advertising and politics and how to use messages for social good. How can you change people’s behaviour through campaigns, how do you get people to really examine their behaviour to change for the better, for the society around them?
I was one of those very privileged people in this world who had access to all the products that I ever needed. Tampons, pads, and an early adopter of the cup (2004, baby!). To learn that so many people who menstruate don’t have those choices, that they can be economically, mentally and emotionally held back by their periods, it became a real AHA moment for me. Being the Partnerships and Communications Manager for Menstrual Hygiene Day with WASH United gave me the opportunity to really absorb myself into the topic of menstrual hygiene and health, Learning about it from a human rights perspective – that menstrual health is truly a matter of human rights – is what actually turned me into a feminist. I didn’t declare myself one before, I was a little ”no, that’s not for me” but then I was like:
Damn, we are disadvantaged in society because of this natural thing that happens to us – why must we be so ashamed of a vital sign as natural as a heartbeat?” It was through this work that I became involved in the menstrual space, although, I’m not so sure I consider myself a menstrual activist, but more of a menstrual health advocate.
M: So Danielle, do you still think feminism is a dirty word or have you embraced it?
D: It’s absolutely not a dirty word, but gender equality and equity resonate with me more.
J: I know what you mean. I think I’m very indoctrinated from Denmark. If you say feminist in Denmark, my impression is that most think of hair under the armpits, or a complete hippie or hating men. People are just like: “We already did women’s liberation back in the 60-70s, we don’t have to talk about this anymore”. So I think I’m a bit like you, Danielle, I didn’t identify with it at all in the beginning and I’m also sometimes a little bit careful with it but I do see how important it is now.
D. Yeah, I agree with all the principles, but the word itself, is problematic because to me it just means we are equal, we have all the opportunities, we are standing on the same level, and that’s not feminism or manism or whatever isms, that’s just equality and equity to the same opportunities. So yes, I’m a feminist by the market definition, but like religion, I have my own special relationship to it.
M: I have to add that feminism has come from a movement. It is fundamentally about achieving gender equality but you have to take into account that women have structurally and systematically been held down, so that’s the reason it has that name. It’s not about making women better than men, it’s about acknowledging that process and improving the position of women and obviously of nonbinary and gender diverse individuals.
So whenever someone says to me “I don’t like feminism, I like gender equality”, I respond that it’s just like if you’d ask me if I like water and I say no, I prefer H2o…it’s the same thing!
D: I was thinking about it more like: I don’t like brownies, but I love chocolate. Gender equality is what gives feminism it’s flavour…
M: But this speaks really fundamentally to the fact that the term still, even to you two as privileged, well-educated women have this discomfort with this term. It’s really fascinating how there are stigma and taboo around feminism. Even though feminism is now sexy again there’s still this taboo.
D: Yes, but I think we’re all on the same page in our hearts and in our minds, it’s just linguistics that make people uncomfortable. What’s most important is choice. We need to have the choice to do what we want to do, think what we want to think, and be who we want to be. If we want to do sex work, if we want to be a feminist, if we want to use pads. We need to have a choice without feeling bad or being pushed into one way or another.
What’s your number one tip for people who want to become menstrual activists or advocates?
D: Just talk about it. Talk about it in uncomfortable situations. One of my favourite things is to talk about menstruation with men and boys. Usually, it goes quite well, there’s lots of learning and “uh – really!?” types of questions that come up. Sometimes it doesn’t go that well but I would say having conversations with men and boys is my number one tip. It automatically breaks down the walls that both men themselves have created as well as the walls that we have instinctively and habitually created for them.
One of my favourite things is to talk about menstruation with men and boys.
M: She stole the words right out of my mouth: Talk about it, say it. This is why you’re my partner – you’re brilliant!
D: Oh, I’m so glad. You’re brilliant too!
M: Me too! This is like an average day at the MH Hub, just me and Danielle telling each other how inspired we are by one other!
Since launching the MH Hub, what has been your most positive experience?
D:, Oh wow, there’s been so many. But to boil it down to one thing my most positive experience has been connecting with amazing women and all the fruit that has been born out of those connections.
M: Great answer! I’m crying right now. Good thing you can’t see my face right now.
D: Me too, I’m really happy right now!
Let’s skip 5 years ahead: where do you see the MH Hub?
D: In 5 years the MH Hub is the pulse of the menstrual movement. It is the number one reference for everything related to menstrual health on an organizational and professional level. It is the Linkedin meets Wikipedia for menstrual health and the go-to place for people affected by and interested in the topic…
M: I see us helping people that are not just activists, actors and practitioners but also everyday women. Maybe we transition into an app that’s always on, like Facebook.
J: That would be awesome – I would love that!
M: Because the menstrual cycle is always on in the background. (everyone laughs)
D: Yeah! The menstrual cycle is omnipresent – until menopause! Then we start a new cycle!
How can an individual or organisation join or support you?
M: As an organization, the best thing to do is to register in the global MH registry. so that we can map and better understand what you’re doing and where you are. As an enterprise or company, it could be offering financial support for the work that we do. We’re always excited to hear from organisations one-on-one about how we can partner up.
For individuals at this stage, the best way is probably to join or start a city-based collective. We’ve set up city-based female / menstrual health collectives around the world and that’s just getting your friends together – or all that are interested – and talking about the topic over coffee or wine or whatever it is that you want and just chatting about periods. I think for now that’s just the best first step for individuals and hopefully, as we grow and develop and launch the platform itself, there’ll be avenues for individuals to be able to connect digitally as well.
D: There are groups set up in Berlin, Amsterdam and now Copenhagen, and a multitude of menstrual efforts happening in London, too.
Last but not least, favourite menstrual product and why?
Note: since we communicate diversity, we did not expect the answer to be a menstrual cup necessarily ;)
M: Mine is a weird one but I really like Flow, which is kind of like a ball with strings on the end to help girls wash and dry their reusable sanitary pads privately. When I saw this: I thought, wow – this is amazing! Because one of the key issues that girls in low-income countries face is that girls aren’t allowed to dry pads outside because people aren’t allowed to see that they’re menstruating and also because of superstitious reasons where people connect the pads to witchcraft. So I thought, wow, this is a simple solution that could have a serious impact and improve girls and women’s health.
D: I don’t like this question because I love and try ALL menstrual products, including RUMPS, organic tampons, period panties and menstrual cups! At this moment, it’s the Diva Cup. I have a complicated relationship with menstrual cups A year ago, I was like, “NO, we’re over, I never wanna see you again” because it leaked all the time, and now that I’ve expanded my horizons and tried others, such as the Lunette and the Lily Cup, I’m like: “Hey, I think I actually like you guys, maybe I wasn’t treating you right. Unfortunately, I destroyed my relationship with my Ruby Cup – I accidentally left it too long in a pot on the stove and it burned. So, I guess you could say I’m back together with my Diva Cup… for now. I like its softness and malleability.