As I waited for the tour guide in the lobby of our hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, excited for our bumpy bus ride to the rural Kampong Cham province, I began to wonder where my travel companion was. Emerging from the lobby bathroom, she shrieked that her period had unexpectedly arrived. A period in a South-East Asian country – where it was more common for menstruation to be shrouded in secrecy than shouted in celebration, and where it seemed like mission impossible to find menstrual products at the local store – felt like a terrifying burden. I reflect on this because it was my “ah-ha” moment. If it was already so troublesome for a tourist to manage their monthly menses on holiday, how difficult would it be for local women and girls?
Armed with this insight, coupled with the first-hand experience of using inadequate toilet amenities and the struggle to access menstrual products, I knew I had to pursue research in this field. There is nothing burdensome about menstruation if you have the knowledge, resources and support to manage it comfortably, confidently and without shame – but is this a reality for young girls? So, I quit my job, I packed my bags and moved back home to pursue a PhD on the menstrual health and hygiene of adolescent girls in Australia and South-East Asia and the effect this placed upon their education.
Research is a humbling journey fraught with many roadblocks if you choose to pursue a traditionally taboo topic like menstruation. My plan to do a cross-cultural comparison between the menstrual experiences of migrant adolescent girls in Sydney and their counterparts in South-East Asia was quickly squandered due to concerns held by the ethics committees at my research institution and at the Department of Education, aggravated by misconceptions within the circles I operated in: “It’s not really helpful if your research only looks at girls’ education”. “Period pain? Why can’t girls just take some painkillers and get on with it?”. The study was perceived as small scale and not in alignment with the strategic priorities of the education board. It was criticised for being administratively burdensome for schools to provide data on students’ attendance and academic performance to validate whether there actually are links between menstruation, absenteeism and academic achievement (a popularised claim globally, but with little objective data to support it). For now, mainly anecdotal evidence underpins these claims which prevents a deeper dive into how other fundamental factors (such as feelings of shame, stigma, resource deficits, menstrual pain) could pose greater influence over absenteeism and academic achievement than the actual event of menstruation itself.
Without the opportunity to run my Australian study, and due to a dearth of funding, I had no case to pursue research overseas that could finish within my PhD timeline. This realisation disheartened me incredibly as my mother is from an impoverished province in the Philippines and regularly cited how the sociocultural environment coupled with resource limitations precluded good menstrual health and hygiene. South-East Asia is my second home across the sea. I wanted to do my part to help. ‘It’s okay’, I told myself, ‘At least I can still work with adolescent girls here’.
In response, I pushed ethics after ethics application to pursue my research in Sydney. However, when my research began to fall apart (or truthfully, fail to start), I could not reconcile it. Funding issues and COVID-19 exacerbated such difficulties, and I gradually had to accept that this is not the right time for my research. However, when the time is right, I’m determined to pursue this research topic again in some form. In the interim, I’m researching the menstrual experiences of university students globally and in Australia and the impact that menstruation has on their educational attainment. My research reminds me that menstrual inequity and stigma extends across the life-course; it isn’t just limited to girls. Menstruation can still be uncomfortable and damaging for some, and it can adversely affect their physical, psychological, social and economic health if they aren’t supported.
The arduousness of my research journey has heightened my gratitude and empathy for everyone who works to promote positive menstrual experiences and offer girls, women and gender-diverse menstruators ownership over their bodies. To every one of them, I say thank you. This is such a challenging space to work in, but I feel it is also the most rewarding.
Alana Munro is a postgraduate research candidate at the University of Sydney and a Policy Officer at the Australian Department of Health. In 2018, Alana and her team launched and implemented the National Action Plan for Endometriosis and has worked with organisations to rollout national programs and guidelines related to menstrual health. Currently, Alana is conducting research into students’ menstrual experiences and the impact on their educational outcomes. She has a sincere passion for young peoples’ sexual and reproductive health and rights and advocating for equitable access to good health and quality education.