Dartmouth professor advocates for feminine hygiene, menstrual health

  • Dartmouth professor Deborah Jordan Brooks (Dartmouth College photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/4/2019 10:35:21 PM
Modified: 4/5/2019 10:19:37 AM

HANOVER — A Dartmouth professor of government has lent her voice to both the global and local discussion over feminine hygiene and menstrual health.

This week, Deborah Jordan Brooks testified before the New Hampshire House Education Committee in support of a bill to expand access to menstrual supplies in schools and also launched a website on global menstrual health.

The website, IMHER.net, which stands for the international menstrual health entrepreneurship roundup, seeks to be an unbiased source of information on global effort to improve menstrual health. The website contains databases on regional organizations, research studies, upcoming conferences and even common Twitter hashtags.

The idea is to provide a comprehensive source of information for any entrepreneur or small- to medium-sized nonprofit organization that might not have the funds or time for research.

Brooks said she was inspired to create the website when she was working with Grace Ningejeje, a fellow from the Young African Leadership Initiative, who was seeking to improve menstrual health in her home country, Burundi, and realized there was no good starting place for this kind of information.

Affordability of tampons and sanitary pads is a common issue. Brooks said in a village in Swaziland, stores carried various products, but the local girls said they could purchase one only if they saved their lunch money.

Beyond cost, other barriers remain. Many areas don’t have good places to dispose of used pads or private places for women and girls to change their menstrual products.

Brooks found that many websites — some of which target toward donors — used anecdotal evidence or made assertions about the efficacy of certain products or methods. Research papers on improving menstrual health often were paywalled.

“We are very careful about the claims we make. We do make it clear what are the debates that are out there,” Brooks said.

Jennifer West, 21, a junior at Dartmouth who has been one of the research assistants working on the website, said she is particularly excited about the blog section, which will feature activists and entrepreneurs who do not usually receive media coverage.

The issue of menstrual health also gained some national attention in February when the documentary Period. End of Sentence, about efforts by women in a village in India to make affordable sanitary pads, won an Oscar.

While the IMHER website is designed mainly for activists and entrepreneurs serving Africa, Asia and South America, such issues also are germane in the U.S.

Brooks testified to the House Education Committee on Wednesday in support of a bill, SB 142, sponsored by state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, which would require middle and high schools to provide free menstrual products in their bathrooms.

The bill, passed by the Senate in February, has yet to be voted on by the House Education Committee. Currently, New York and California are the only other states to require menstrual supplies to be available for free in schools, though California requires it only for schools below a certain poverty threshold.

“Part of my testimony is that the writing is on the wall. … People are talking about this issue in a way that this issue seems unlikely to go away,” Brooks said.

Dartmouth College, where Brooks works, is no exception to the trend. Many women’s or gender-neutral restrooms on campus hold baskets of tampons or pads or a machine that dispenses them for free, as is in the case at other Ivy League schools.

While the users may not be getting their preferred brand or use them only in emergencies, access is still important, Brooks said.

“In an institution with some boys clubs, this signals that women are welcome there,” Brooks said.

Amanda Zhou can be reached at azhou@vnews.com.

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