Imagine this: you’re sitting in your 3rd grade classroom, your palms sweating as you listen to your teacher start the next lesson on “sex education.” To your dismay, today’s topic is menstruation.
Suddenly, your teacher opens a box and surprises the class with what looks like virtual reality headsets. Time flies as you and your classmates immerse in dynamic virtual worlds and play games that help bring to life various period products and stages of the menstrual cycle. Walking out of class, you can’t believe that learning and talking about periods was actually… fun.
That reverie—of young students learning about menstruation with advanced technology—is just one example of how Period Futures, an early-stage venture and online platform, intends to spark curiosity and reshape individual perceptions of periods for the better.
The founders of this discourse- changing organization—Jasmine Burton, Katie Kirsch, Devika Patel, and Roshi Rouzbehani—were brought together by their plethora of work experiences at the intersection of health, gender equity, water, sanitation, and hygiene. It was their shared passion for metamorphosing the menstrual health field that led to establishing Period Futures and committing to creating content and incubating menstrual health projects that go beyond the status quo, and that are more inclusive, forward-thinking, and boundary-pushing.
“Menstrual health is an incredibly meaningful and fascinating space to innovate in—it’s brimming with possibilities. With Period Futures, we hope to inspire more designers, engineers, and creatives to join this work and help enable a positive future world for all who menstruate,” says Kirsch, Design Program Manager at Designer Fund and Co-founder of Girl Possible, a non-profit with a mission for empowering middle-school girls through design thinking.
And the timing couldn’t be better. The past decade has brought a wave of transformation in thought, technology, and leaders in the menstruation space. With women’s involvement increasing, there’s now an amalgam of experts from different backgrounds joining the movement to shake-up the menstrual health world. Even though, non-menstruating men still design most new period innovations, which mostly focus on monetizing pregnancy and infertility—the pièce de résistance of the GLOW app, a mobile tool meant for tracking female reproductive health. Period Futures will leverage design thinking and the assembly of a larger composition of creatives, experts, and marginalized groups to tackle the complicated web of issues surrounding menstruation.
“Periods are complicated, stigmatized, and the numerous challenges surrounding them are messy and unjust. There are many opportunities to study, innovate, and disseminate best practices that will affect change and globally scale innovation,” says Patel, a public health practitioner and Design Director at UCSF’s The Better Lab, an independent venture using design thinking to study and fix healthcare challenges.
It’s not an overstatement to say that menstruation is a life-changing event for young menstruators. Of the nearly four billion people globally who have female genital organs, most will bleed three to seven days every month for almost 40 years. Most times, this has steep physical, emotional, and economic costs. Truthfully, the menstruation conversation is complicated and not “sexy.” Periods are not always life-threatening, so they don’t get the attention they deserve. Instead, they are a stigma-ridden nuisance influenced by old traditions and attitudes that historically have had negative real-life ramifications—beyond shame and social exhaustion—for persons who menstruate. “This problem disproportionately impacts the livelihoods, educational attainment, and career opportunities for women and girls in resource-constrained communities,” relates Burton, who is also a founder of The Hybrid Hype and Wish for Wash, an organization accelerating innovation in the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector.
There need to be some fresh eyes on menstruation, and that’s what Period Futures is bringing to the table. To get started, Burton, Kirsch, and Patel embarked on a three-week design sprint to imagine future societies’ attitude towards menstruation. Encouraged by their dedication to thinking outside the box and guided by “what if” statements, they started to think big and go beyond what we normally associate with menstrual health. For example, what if young boys understood what it was like to have a period? What if women felt like they could be honest about their menstrual pain in the workplace? What if period products were free at schools?
Through a series of surveys and interviews, they cataloged the global menstrual health movement into eight reoccurring themes: stigma, education, affordability, choice, accessibility, sanitation, sustainability, and inclusivity.
Following their design sprint—via brainstorms, illustrations, written pieces, and web development—their inspirations transformed into “provocations”: visions of the future that challenge our current perspectives and pre-set notions about periods. Since launching their online platform this year on May 28, Menstrual Health Day, their vision has evolved further into a three-pronged approach to inspire the much overdue change they want to see in the world—provocation, amplification, and incubation.
First is provocation, or, imagining futuristic scenarios. The founders designed and launched tangible provocations online, that push the boundaries of existing menstrual health innovations within the eight themes. Early childhood menstrual education through VR is an example of a provocation that would help reshape the perception of menstruation at an early age. On a large scale, many stigmatic practices in the treatment of those who bleed (e.g., “period shaming”) could benefit from futuristic and positive-leaning thinking and inventions.
Second is the amplification of minority voices, which puts greater focus on the theme of inclusivity. Lack of opportunities and funding have led to the systematic silencing and exclusion of Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ menstruators from the advocacy space; like larger organizations taking active measures to stifle or control their voices. Period Futures wants to give a platform to leaders from minority communities with the Period Futurist series. The series will highlight the works of nominated menstrual health advocates around the world through interviews and dedicated written pieces, and bring attention to each of their individual works.
The third approach, incubation, is the team’s latest ambition. The goal is to empower young creatives, designers, and engineers to enter the menstrual health sector through a fellowship. The “Period Fellowship” is an opportunity for professionals to learn about menstrual health issues and the basics of design thinking through a structured program. Period Futures will adopt a model where ideas are taken from early stages to launch. Fellows can pursue projects and ventures with mentorship from the Period Futures team or get internships and consultancy placements at already existing menstrual health organizations.
Period Futures envisions a world where young girls don’t miss school because of periods; where menstrual products are sanitary, safe, and accessible to everyone; and where non-menstruators know about periods too and how important they are for the health of those who menstruate. The provocations and work presented by this team are meant to virtually place you in a world where the impossible has been made possible for menstruators.
Silvia Young, in My FemTruth: Scandalous Survival Stories, said, “Leaders bleed, period.” So, let’s finally change how we think of menstruation and give the lead to designers, innovators, and creatives that bleed, too.
— If you’d like to learn more or engage with the Period Futures team, visit their website periodfutures.org, which currently houses their latest provocations, themes, and stories.