Graduate challenges normative assumptions around menstrual health and human rights in Masters thesis

Gemma-Mae Hartley
Gemma-Mae Hartley

By Zindzi Nkunzi


Supervised by Associate Professor Eduard Jordaan, Gemma-Mae Hartley recently graduated with a Master of Arts degree at the October graduation ceremonies. Her tertiary journey began with uncertainty and after changing her degree multiple times, Hartley eventually found her calling in Political and International Studies.

The examiner described her work as "an interesting thesis” and stated, “The author should be commended for pursuing a line of enquiry intended to challenge some of the normative assumptions about human rights. She displays a good understanding of the various strands of western human rights theory, positions herself well within the debate and competently lays out her argument."


Q: What is the title of your thesis?

A: Inadequate Menstrual Health Management and Human Rights


Q: What is your research study about?

A: My research looked at inadequate Menstrual Health Management (MHM) which, in the popular discourse, is known as "period poverty". I interrogated orthodox notions of human rights, violations, and responsibility to ultimately argue that inadequate MHM can be considered a violation of human rights.


Q: Can you give a brief summary of your research?

A: Various human rights bodies have suggested that inadequate MHM could contribute to violations of human rights or, at the very least, is connected to the fulfilment of human rights. Despite recognition of this, there has not been thorough analysis of whether inadequate MHM is a violation of human rights, particularly in political discussions on the philosophy of human rights. Using a liberal cosmopolitan framework, my thesis attempted to bridge this gap and, ultimately, argued that inadequate MHM constitutes a violation of human rights.

This assertion brought with it various complications due to the heavily contested nature of human rights, their correlative duties, and the requirements for a lack of fulfilment to be considered a violation. I addressed each complication in turn. I argue that the traditional approach to human rights violations fails to consider the various ways that human rights are violated in our contemporary, globalised world. I suggested that structural violations of human rights should not be ruled out, particularly when we consider severe poverty and its by-products.

Ultimately, the question of inadequate MHM is concerned with the content of human rights. If inadequate MHM were a violation, it would be a violation of women's socio-economic rights. However, both group rights and socio-economic rights are contested. I therefore justified these rights. Group-differentiated rights are argued to be necessary for substantive equality. This is particularly the case when we consider the various risks women face simply because they are women. Women therefore need special protections and provisions for their human rights to be fulfilled. Socio-economic rights are necessary for the well-being and dignity of individuals everywhere. We can justify them even if they are costly, vague, and demanding on states, as critics argue they are. Therefore, if we can accept socio-economic rights and women's rights, we can argue that inadequate MHM is a structural violation of human rights.


Q: Why did you research about this particular topic? What was the motivation behind this study?

A: The area of study is relatively new and there are considerable gaps in the research when it comes to menstrual health and human rights. I was immediately drawn to the topic when I started looking into period poverty and its effects. Every day, the world over, there are thousands of women and girls who miss school or work because they are menstruating. There are some who are risking their health and well-being because they have no option but to use 'alternative' make-shift materials to manage their monthly menstruation. These include old socks and leaves. Women and girls thus require the appropriate facilities, information, and products to manage their monthly menstruation. When these women cannot get suitable feminine hygiene products, the fulfilment of their rights to health, education, work, and dignity are at stake. I undertook this research in an attempt to contribute to bridging the gap between the assertion of women's rights and their fulfilment. Menstrual health aptly illustrates this gap.


Q: What is the significance of your study? How do you expect this study to benefit society and other researchers?

A: Thinking about inadequate MHM as directly connected to the fulfilment of women's human rights means that we can respond to it with a level of urgency. This has the potential to improve the well-being, development, and dignity of women.

My research engaged the conversation around period poverty and human rights at the most basic and fundamental level: theory. By using a relatively uncontroversial theoretical framework, the argument that we can consider inadequate MHM a violation of human rights has the potential to convince more people and prevent the conversation from being side-lined as simply a "women’s issue”. In this way, I see my research as contributing to the foundation of the conversation and as a continuation of feminist assertions that the personal is political and that women’s rights are human rights.


Q: What were some of the limitations and challenges you faced during this journey? How did you overcome those?

A: The journey was a tough one punctuated by the pandemic and multiple lockdowns, and I was also navigating some personal turmoil too. That being said, my supervisor and Department offered unwavering support that kept me grounded and engaged throughout it all. My research was entirely theoretical and so I spent most of my time in the company of only the scholars that I was reading. The journey was a distinctly solitary one but through that I learnt so much about myself, my beliefs, and my mind.


Q: What were some of the most surprising findings you discovered during your research?

A: The severity of period poverty and how widespread it is. Some of the data shows that young girls are engaging in transactional sex to pay for menstrual products, and some are experiencing consistent non-sexually transmitted urogenital infections. Many are missing school at an alarming rate and are feeling ashamed of their bodies’ natural functions. Although the research is limited, there are studies that suggest women are missing work and consequently losing wages needed to provide for themselves and their families. This also isn’t a localised issue – it is global and impacts all countries regardless of the strength of their economies.

Source:  Communications