Restoring Dignity to a Vital Sign of Life

GW’s Women’s Leadership Program brings this year’s annual conference to the Foggy Bottom campus for a discussion on menstruation.

April 15, 2024

WLP annual symposium 2024.

The Women's Leadership Program panel from left moderator Manasa Sharma, Nancy Gaba and Marni Sommer. (Photos: Cara Taylor/GW Today)

Menstruation is a normal part of the human experience that half the world’s population can expect to go through at a certain point in the life cycle, and yet menstruation is spoken of in hushed tones, if at all, the spot of blood on the back of a skirt too often regarded as a mark of shame and embarrassment.

Each year, George Washington University’s Women’s Leadership Program (WLP) hosts a conference where national and international women leaders address issues of vital importance and invites the GW community to the Mount Vernon Campus (MVC), where the program is based.  

Manasa Sharma, a Nepalese-American junior at GW who began her studies at GW in the WLP, suggested menstruation as the topic for this year’s symposium—in  support of the Global South Coalition for Dignified Menstruation, an organization that seeks to bring dignity to menstruators and end the stigma, taboo and discrimination associated with the naturally occurring cycle. A team of seven WLP students helped to plan every detail of the event, including publicity, panelists and reception activities.

WLP Executive Director Carly Jordan welcomed the idea, noting that as a biologist, she sees “menstruation as an essential, complex and beautiful process.”

“Menstruation is such an incredibly impactful for a huge segment of the population—experienced by 800 million people every single day—and yet it remains quieted, talked about in hushed tones and often only among family and close friends,” Jordan said. “Roughly 35 years of our lives it impacts our wellbeing, our health, both mental and physical, our daily routines, our relationships with ourselves and others, even our outfit choices.”

WLP annual symposium in 2024.
For the first time, the WLP moved the annual symposium from the Mount Vernon Campus, which houses the WLP, to the Foggy Bottom campus.

For the first time, the WLP moved the annual symposium from the MVC to the auditorium at Funger Hall on the Foggy Bottom campus to encourage the GW student body to attend, and the hall was full but with only two men.

Sharma, who is majoring in public health and dance, served as moderator, introducing a panel of experts, including Marni Sommer, a professor of social medical sciences at Columbia University who has conducted research on impacts of menstrual on education and public health; Nancy Gaba, a board certified OB-GYN and endowed professor and chair of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology; and Mili Adhikari, a third year medical student at the University of California-Davis and director of the North American Coalition for Dignified Menstruation.

After a video of GW students describing the stress and discomfort they experience during their menstrual periods, Sharma asked the panelists to address the question of why there is so much stigma and shame associated with menstruation.

The response ranged from possible broad social and cultural reasons to a lack of facilities that accommodate menstruators to institutional, religious and cultural practices that condemn menstrual blood as impure.

Sommer said the dynamics of how menstruation is dealt with often depends on the personal and public sphere, affecting how the person is perceived and their engagement in daily life.

“In many parts of the world, including [in the U.S.], depending on your background, you may have to sleep separately,” Sommer said. “You may have to refrain from certain activities, going to pray, cooking, different things. That isn’t to say it is all negative. Research shows [some] actually like it because they get a break from chores, and they get to hang out together.”

If we want to make this a normal part of life “it starts with education,” said Gaba, “normalizing it not just for the girl in the family, but for the whole family. I think there’s a place for this to be an educational opportunity for everybody. I wish we had an auditorium that was a little bit more representative.”

On the other hand, menstruation can be treated so normal that medical abnormalities associated with it, painful periods and heavy bleeding, are often disregarded, she said, with access to medical care and medication not made available. In addition, doctors are not adequately reimbursed for treating abnormalities.

Gaba said these attitudes can be internalized and people think they just have to power through this.

“If pain medication isn’t working people need to seek help. That is a sign of a problem that needs to be investigated,” she said. “The more we share that if the pain medicine isn’t working for you there’s something wrong, and you need to get help, the more we can help others.”

Adhikari added that on another level such attitudes reflect a power dynamic between menstruators and non-menstruators. “How are they okay and pure enough to work in the fields to grow that grain or rice but are not allowed in the kitchen space,” she said. “I think the social, political and economic discrimination and violence surrounding the menstrual cycle from the womb to the tomb creates structural violence that perpetuates gender-based violence, inequality and social injustice.”

Asked what can be done globally to see menstruation from a point of dignity, Gaba explained that people lose dignity when they lose control, so empowering them, giving them control over not becoming pregnant or experiencing mortification because they are bleeding heavily are things that can restore dignity.

Panelists added that means making sure menstrual products are available and affordable, providing more education about menstruation as early as elementary school, inclusion in mainstream art forms such as films and literature—and not advertisements that promote products with blue blood or gushing depictions.

“[The Global South Coalition for Dignified Menstruation] is establishing space where we celebrate menstruation,” said Adhikari, “with dance performances and comedians who say this biological phenomenon is the reason the world continues to be.”