Menstruating in a Neoliberal Structure: A Feminist Reflection on Consumer-based Environmentalism

June 13, 2018

BY Sachini Perera

This morning I realized my period had arrived and put on my menstrual cup without a second thought. I switched to menstrual cups exactly one year ago, and as with my IUD, going beyond the typical array of reproductive health choices offered to me made a distinct change in my lifestyle. After a steep learning curve (pun well intended) of 2-3 menstrual cycles, the menstrual cup fully replaced sanitary pads. Apart from removing a monthly expense from my life, it also taught me more about my body: the length of my vagina, as well as the changing consistency, color, and quantity of my period blood on each day of the cycle.

Producers of menstrual cups use the ‘eco-friendly’ choice as their biggest selling point. In all honesty, the eco-friendliness was not a factor in my decision  to switch to menstrual cups. As you will see in the thread below, I’m not a proponent of consumer-based environmentalism. My choice was driven by curiosity. I had been reading about menstrual cups for many years but never dared to get one. I felt  the high cost of this one-time purchase was excessive for something I might end-up not using. So when Malaysian sex educator June Low of Popek Popek shared a discount code for the UK-manufactured and otherwise-expensive menstrual cups, I decided to finally get one for myself.

It turned out to be an excellent decision for myself. While I recommend it to others and encourage those who are trying to decide whether to try a menstrual cup, I’ve been hesitant to promote it as a better choice to make in relation to the environment. Not because I don’t see any value in sanitary products that are more environmentally-friendly (and as a friend said today, products like reusable cloth pads are a throwback to a time when they were the only option regardless of the environmental impact, except now they are being inducted into the menstrual industrial complex) and not because I deny plastic pollution but because we live in a world and economic system in which only some of us have the privilege and capacity to make better choices, whether in relation to the environment, our bodies, food, etc. while the rest of us are shamed or made to feel bad about not being able to make those better choices. While those who create, maintain and exacerbate those inequalities and promote neoliberal ideology enjoy absolute impunity.

Instead, when I do promote the use of menstrual cups, I do it as a way to better understand your body and as an additional choice regarding your reproductive health. We all know those choices are hard to come by. That said, there are multiple privileges involved in expanding the number of choices one has, given that in many parts of the world, access to basic sanitary products still remains unattained due to cost, lack of information, social stigma, etc. For example, if you live in a community in which there is a high level of social stigma around menstruation and related cultural and religious beliefs, then even if you’ve been given a menstrual cup for free, disposing the blood and cleaning the cup at regular intervals will be a huge challenge and quite difficult to manage in a discreet way.

The same would apply to other eco-friendly sanitary products such as washable and reusable sanitary pads. Even if you’re lucky enough to have access to clean water and sanitation (which, let’s face it, is a rarity in many countries we are from), reports show that women and girls are embarrassed and restricted by social stigma and cultural and religious beliefs. The stigma and beliefs are so pervasive that they lead women and girls to quickly and discreetly wash the pads without soap and not dry them in direct sunlight leaving them instead to dry inside rooms or drawers. This has serious health repercussions and prevents them from having full bodily autonomy.

Therefore it was disconcerting to see a number of feminist and human rights organizations and particularly SRHR organizations making a reductive link between menstruation and the environment in their World Environment Day campaigns and messages. This is not to say that an interlinkages approach is not the way to go. It is the only way to go and at RESURJ we firmly believe that in order to achieve sexual and reproductive justice for all women, adolescents and girls in all their diversity including trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming identities, there has to be “an understanding of and a commitment to addressing the interlinkages between our bodies, our health, and our human rights in the context of the ecological, economic, and social crises of our times”. In other words, an interlinkages approach will do more harm than good unless our analysis recognizes and challenges structural inequalities and “historic injustices and systemic inequality in gender power relations”. I was particularly alarmed by the call to action to women and girls to “do our part” which assumes us to be homogenous or even worse, is targeting only those with enough privilege and capacity to do so. And either way, is reproducing neoliberal ideology of individual responsibility without examining, calling out and downright challenging it.

In addition to the links between menstruation and the environment being problematically framed, the aforementioned campaigns were also promoting the UN Environment Programme’s #BeatPlasticPollution. The hashtag campaign focuses on individual action without calling out states and private companies for their contributions to environmental pollution as well as the impunity they enjoy. Given the kind of state and corporate capture situation the United Nations is in, it is time feminist and human rights organizations stop unquestioningly getting on board any campaign introduced by the UN. If we don’t raise the bar, no one will. And with that, below is a thread of tweets that unpack the issues with making reductive links between menstruation and the environment and recommendations for how we can do better together.

It’s been alarming to observe several #SRHR organizations and activists making a reductive link between menstruation and the environment in their #WorldEnvironmentDay messages. Here is why.— sp (@sachp) June 5, 2018

1) It is essential that any analysis of menstrual products and menstrual waste is framed by neoliberal ideology and economic policies that deepen inequalities. It’s not a passing observation. It’s the entire premise. #WorldEnvironmentDay #SRHR— sp (@sachp) June 5, 2018

2) It is not users of menstrual products who have contributed to menstrual waste. It is the menstrual industrial complex and the neoliberal, capitalist and patriarchal forces that drive the said complex. #WorldEnvironmentDay #SRHR— sp (@sachp) June 5, 2018

3) When did the menstrual industrial complex begin? Probably around when women started entering the labour market and there arose a need to make us productive neoliberal subjects even while menstruating. #WorldEnvironmentDay #SRHR— sp (@sachp) June 5, 2018

4) Any link made between menstruation and the environment has to declare on the outset itself that choices people make (with varying degrees of privilege) regarding menstrual products are forced upon us by an economic system we didn’t sign up for. #WorldEnvironmentDay #SRHR— sp (@sachp) June 5, 2018

5) Such an analysis makes it clear that what should be questioned is not the taxation of menstrual products but the commodification of menstrual products and practices. Vanessa Borjon articulates this well: #WorldEnvironmentDay #SRHR @BitchMedia— sp (@sachp) June 5, 2018

6) A few points on my discomfort with #SRHR orgs’ call to action to women and girls to “let’s do our part”. For starters, the onus is not on individuals. Consumer-based environmentalism is reproducing neoliberal ideology of individual responsibility. #WorldEnvironmentDay— sp (@sachp) June 5, 2018

7) This article is a great read about the above-mentioned point (thanks @TMnY for sharing): Want to reduce plastic waste? “Make the producers pay for their waste.” #WorldEnvironmentDay #SRHR— sp (@sachp) June 5, 2018

8) Analysis of menstruation and the environment must also consider that “not all people who menstruate are women, and not all women menstruate” which means challenges around cost, stigma, access to services are further exacerbated. #WorldEnvironmentDay #SRHR @TonitheTampon— sp (@sachp) June 5, 2018

9) Making such reductive linkages without exploring structural causes renders your calls to action ableist and privileged in addition to adhering to neoliberal ideology. @dis_sexuality resources show you why: #WorldEnvironmentDay #SRHR— sp (@sachp) June 5, 2018

10) I also have a point to make about women who work in the supply chains that produce menstrual products, both the plastic ones and reusable, but I’m running out of time so any reading recommendations would be most welcome. #WorldEnvironmentDay #SRHR— sp (@sachp) June 5, 2018

11) It’s great that #SRHR organizations and activists are identifying and linking sexual and reproductive rights with the environment but let’s not fall into neoliberal traps while doing so. #WorldEnvironmentDay— sp (@sachp) June 5, 2018

12) Instead, our #WorldEnvironmentDay call to action must be based on sexual and reproductive justice and address “interlinkages between our bodies, our health, and our human rights in the context of the ecological, economic, and social crises of our times” ✊  @RESURJ— sp (@sachp) June 5, 2018

If you’ve missed them, check out more #RESURJReflections related to the environment and SRJ:

Development Projects and Violence Against Environmental and Land Defenders in Brazil

Mexico: Deepening Inequalities With New Neoliberal Rollbacks

Struggle for justice: Women and Girls Living in Rural Areas: Reflections with my Mother