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Why We Insist On Using The Term ‘Menstruator’

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

Written by Ekata Lahiri

A common misconception which has been in practice for way too long is the usage of the term ‘feminine hygiene’ to describe products which cater to people who menstruate. Such usage is problematic for several reasons.

Representational image

To begin with, using ‘hygiene’ for menstrual products implies that periods are essentially an unhygienic and unclean, a process which requires special products. Situating menstruation in such a context automatically sets wrong precedents about what is otherwise a normal bodily process.

But besides this, using the term ‘feminine’ interchangeably for all people who menstruate is also heavily problematic since it is exclusionary and not gender-neutral. The origin of its usage can be linked to the larger misconception that biological sex is similar to one’s gender (further explained here), which in reality, is not an accurate statement.

First, we need to be clear about the distinction between sex and gender. Biological sex is assigned to a person at birth, and it is almost completely based on the appearance of their external genitalia. On the other hand, gender is a social and cultural construction, and although it is still a product of prolonged conditioning, it has little to nothing to actually do with the person’s sex.

Since menstruation is a bodily process, the immediate response of people is to relate it to one’s body; however, what the usage of words such as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in the context of menstruation does is to mix up a person’s gender expression and their biological sex.

There are a few other points which we must keep in mind while formulating our vocabulary while talking about menstruation.

  • Not all women menstruate, and not everyone who menstruates is a woman; not using the term ‘menstruator’ / ‘menstruating’ people is inherently trans-exclusionary.
  • Even while speaking about women who menstruate, to reduce their ‘womanhood’ to one bodily process reinforces the idea that women’s chief purpose is to reproduce, which is a problematic gender role requiring little explanation.

Gender identity does not function in a binary, and there are many gender identities and expressions beyond the male-female model we have been exposed to for most of our lives. This binary does not just exclude trans people but is also not mindful of non-binary, genderfluid, and gender non-conforming people.

This is mainly why stating that only women menstruate is simply a wrong statement, as it completely dismisses trans people who menstruate while not identifying with the ‘female’ gender. The discourse around menstruation completely immerses itself in vocabulary, which reinforces the gender binary. In that case, the chances are that it would become significantly difficult for trans and non-binary people to access menstrual and reproductive healthcare, which would, in turn, increase chances of gendered violence.

People doing yoga on the beachTherefore, it is very important to start with the basics (which, here, is the choice of words). Eventually, we work our way around more pressing changes in how both menstruation and menstruators are treated within the larger medical discourse. In addition to this, directly equating only women to menstruation also sets the precedent that the process (and its purpose) is synonymous to the experience of being a woman, which reduces people to their wombs and childbearing capacities.

In a world where the need of the hour is to increase awareness around gender roles and how they can be undone, using gender-neutral terms such as ‘menstruator’ also helps eliminate associations that restrict women’s capabilities and bodily autonomy.

However, there is also growing disconcert from cisgender women regarding how using the term ‘menstruator’ results in an erasure of their lived experiences, as has been discussed in detail in this article. There have also been debates around whether the term ‘menstruator’ should be discarded- and replaced with ‘women’- since it is the sexuality of women which has been under patriarchal control (which means that even if trans or non-binary people menstruate, they would not be discriminated against like cis-women are).

Such a stance reeks of gender essentialism and is an example of trans-exclusionary radical feminism (or TERF). It invisibilises both the gender identity and the bodily experiences of trans women, who can and do experience period-like symptoms, especially following their hormone replacement therapy. This has been elaborated here by Sam Riedel.

Similarly, such a stance also invalidates how trans men can menstruate as well. Since one’s genitalia is not a defining characteristic for their gender identity, the process of menstruation should also not be attached to one specific gender. Although most advertisements around menstrual products have focused on cis-women, there have been some campaigns on trans men as well (like this one by Pink Parcel), which amplifies an otherwise almost invisiblised concern.

A change in how we address menstruators would certainly normalise such conversations in our daily lives to a greater extent, eventually resulting in reduced stigma around the topic at large.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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