The battle to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals is going to be a bloody one.
Menstrual hygiene management is linked to 8 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015: No poverty, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities, and responsible consumption and production. Despite the urgency in the call to action set forth by the SDGs, menstrual poverty and menstrual stigmas continue to plague the communities we live in today. Dysmenorrhea, commonly known as menstrual pains, continues to be the leading cause of recurrent school and work absenteeism among menstruating people.
Although there has been a global effort to reduce menstrual poverty through the provision of menstrual products to under-resourced populations, there has been very little improvement to the experience of menstruation. The products existing on the market to manage menstruation have proven to be insufficient in addressing the pain points and needs of menstruating people. Therefore, what is missing in the current design of menstrual products on the market today?
The answer to this question is, nothing. There is nothing that is missing because there are only so many ways you can innovate within the design constraints of a sanitary pad or a tampon. We’ve exhausted the options in terms of their form, structure, and function.
Fortunately, there is a way to expand the realm of possibilities pertaining to menstrual product design and to create a new solution altogether. When we reframe the question we’re asking from what is missing to who is missing in menstrual product innovation, we introduce new lenses through which we can approach the design challenge. It is for this reason that all people should be involved in the design of menstrual products, not just those who menstruate. The “for us by us” approach may seem attractive and even unique in this industry but it does come with its limitations.
Truly groundbreaking innovation happens when parallels are drawn between seemingly disparate sources of knowledge and ideas. This is how a cisgender, male origami artist became the most important collaborator in the design of our reusable menstrual product. It is how connecting the dots between space travel and massage therapy lead to the development of a chemical-free remedy for menstrual pain.
Most of my work developing Sprxng has been forming these unconventional collaborations and co-creating with the people who I am designing for. This work involves convincing experts who are non-menstruating people to see and believe in the role they have to play in the design of a menstrual product. It takes empathy to want to solve a problem that you are not directly affected by, and at the core of all good design is empathy. Everyone is capable of empathy and menstrual products are worthy of good design. A human-centered approach driven by empathy and curiosity has enabled us at Sprxng to develop a menstrual product for those who have been ignored by this industry: People with disabilities, people in post-crisis and humanitarian settings, people living in under-resourced environments, people who don’t identify as women.
If you design without empathy and curiosity, you settle on your expertise and privilege. You filter people out of the design process whose contributions could extend the universe of potential solutions. You risk finding the right solution only to discover that you were asking the wrong question all along. This speaks to the design of tampons and sanitary pads: They are the right answer to the wrong question for our generation. It is not enough to simply iterate around the designs of existing menstrual products, like shuffling back and forth between more absorbent, ultra thin, yet always harmful to the environment sanitary pads. It’s still a pad at the end of the day and it’s not enough. We must strive to nurture disruptive collaboration in order to create useful, inclusive, culturally-competent menstrual products.
Inadequate menstrual management is a public health crisis, and when it comes to the health of the public, everybody has a stake. The good news is that my generation is empathetic, my generation is curious, and my generation has the courage to ask questions.
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