The Ms. Q&A: Anna Dahlqvist is Fighting for Menstruators Around the World

Today is Menstrual Hygiene Day 2018—and at Ms., we’re celebrating Menstrual Equity Day alongside it!

It’s been a big year for this movement: Policies to ensure access to menstrual products have been introduced and passed with gusto across the United States; a Bollywood feature film, Pad Man, stormed the box office; and campaigns to address “period poverty” are making headlines around the globe—and even made an appearance during the Royal Wedding. Period-focused literature—including popular nonfiction, modern health guides and even a new young adult anthology—is also on the rise. I was thrilled to talk to Anna Dahlqvist about her latest contribution to that growing collection: It’s Only Blood: Shattering the Taboo of Menstruation.

Let’s start with the book title, It’s Only Blood—and the book cover—both of which I love because they are simple, stark and stunning all at once, and signal that we are going to be exposed to the myriad ways in which periods, and the stigma and superstition that surround them, can unfairly complicate or burden lives. How exactly did you initiate this project? What was your goal in capturing such a vast array of narratives? How did you find willing interviewees?

In 2012, I had written my first book about the consequences of the abortion bans in Europe. I was looking for a related topic within my area of interest—women´s bodies as a tool for oppression and discrimination. I read an article about girls in an area in South Africa not being able to go to school because they had no possibility to manage their periods there. This was in 2013, and it made me so mad! The hypocrisy of the patriarchy—that our bodies may be celebrated when we bear children, but menstruation becomes an obstacle—was too much. It also made me realize that I, as a menstruator and feminist, had gone along with the notion that menstruation is a more or less private matter and not a political one.

I began my research with that article—which led me to focus on the intersection of shame, silence and poverty. I decided to write about the consequences in some of the poorest parts of the world: sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. My goal was, and is, to show how periods are political, and how shame and silence, in combination with the lack of resources to manage menstruation, leads to recurrent violation of human rights.

The stories you share take the reader on a journey to all corners of the globe. Can you offer a few snippets here for Ms. readers? Whom do we get to meet? How are their experiences similar, different and interconnected all at once?

The heart and soul of the book are the people I interviewed. Among the most memorable: 14-year-old Saudah in Kampala, Uganda, who did not have access to what she needed to manage her period in school—water, privacy, soap—and therefore had to go home to change her piece of fabric, clean and put it away to dry. She described her bleeding days as “lost days” because all she could think about was if the cloth would leak or fall out. She could not concentrate on school at all.

The fear of being exposed bleeding as a teenager can be pretty strong. I think many of us can relate to that, but it becomes a lot worse when you use a fabric that does not fully absorb the blood, that is always wet and that cannot be attached to your underwear. Add to that no lock at the toilet, no running water, no soap. How would any of us manage?

In the book I engage with menstruators in Uganda, Kenya and India—all of whom describe their challenges and coping strategies. And despite the differences in their lives, there is one common denominator: We all have to deal with the shame and silence and that is at the very heart of the problem. We need to be able to talk freely to demand changes. The stigma is holding us back, draining and diminishing our rights.

What did you hear that was unexpected? That inspired you? That shocked you?

When I started my research in 2014 there were so many things I did not know—like the fact that there was a concept called Menstrual Hygiene Management, that it had been recognized in the global fight against poverty, that there were so many initiatives around the world and so many brave activists from India to Pakistan. I did not expect to find such a clear path between menstruation and the right to health, education, work. Of course, all this inspired me.

When I met people like Manjula in a village in Karnataka, India, who took a stand against the rule not to enter a Hindu temple while bleeding—which caused controversy among her friends, even while I was interviewing them—that gave me so much inspiration. And Kushala! A 13-year-old girl who spoke so freely to me about how upset she was when she could not go on a field trip to a temple because she was on her period.

And shocking? Well, it is all truly shocking. What menstruators have to deal with because their—our—needs are neglected, like using small left-over pieces of fabric from the textile factories in Bangladesh as menstrual protection or drying cloths under mattresses so that no one will see them, despite the fact that they won’t get fully dry. Sleeping in small huts, where the risk of dying of suffocation for trying to keep warm—as has happened several times in the past year alone in some parts of Nepal.

I am a big fan of using storytelling and dialogue as a tool for advancing social change, especially for fueling legal and policy change. What has been your motivation for collecting these testimonies? What do you want readers to take away from, or take action on, after they read this book?

Me too! For me, that is where it has to start—with people telling their own stories, elevating their realities, expressing their needs and rights. And as a journalist, my job is to make complicated issues understandable. That can only be done through meeting people, and investing emotionally. And I want the readers to feel it, to engage and hopefully they will then want to make a change.

In what way? By breaking the silence on whatever level works for you. Say the word menstruation or period out loud, so that the shame will lose its grip. Demand action—from politicians, media, businesses, health professionals, schools, work places, unions. We have the right to more research, better health care, more information, menstrual products that are cheaper, comfortable, sustainable and available to everyone. And to a menstrual-friendly environment—where we work, study, live.

As someone who writes about and advocates for menstrual equity policy in the U.S., one of the challenges I have faced is convincing lawmakers—and even the general public—that Americans, too, share in this crisis when it comes to matters of access, safety and stigma. What is your advice about how to link all of our work in an inclusive, compelling global narrative?

I appreciate your work and especially your frame of “menstrual equity”—and agree that we all must address the issue proactively. We have the right to be free from discrimination because of the way our bodies work. There is so much concrete action needed—more research, more data, more testimonies. The time has come to move periods out from the shadows, and squarely in the center of our society.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is a lawyer, fierce advocate for and frequent writer on issues of gender, feminism and politics in America. Dubbed the “architect of the U.S. campaign to squash the tampon tax” by Newsweek, she is the author ofPeriods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity, which was lauded by Gloria Steinem as “the beginning of liberation for us all,” and is a contributor to the recently-released young adult book Period.: Twelve Voices Tell the Bloody Truth.

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