When it comes to solving the grand challenges of our time, one’s immediate thought may turn to the work of UMD students fighting climate change or global poverty, but for junior pre-med neurobiology and physiology student Meghna Pandey, she is invested in the pursuit of menstrual justice for menstruators in India, and beyond.
Upon first glance, it can be difficult to identify the scope of harm when it comes to misconceptions around menstruation as a global public health crisis. However, for women in India, dehumanizing practices in and around menstruation post a critical threat to their health and wellbeing—ranging from being forced to skip school while menstruating, sleeping in adjoining sheds on the basis that this bodily function is “impure”, and even hysterectomies to increase their productivity in the workplace. Further, this is an issue that leaves impoverished menstruators most vulnerable to exploitation and physical harm. Menstrual justice as reparative justice practice seeks to establish menstrual equity—equal and comprehensive access to menstrual hygiene products, education about reproductive health, and the reduction of stigma and other barriers of care.
This served as a call to action for Pandey and her peers in UMD’s chapter of Public Health Beyond Borders (PHBB), an organization that organizes globally minded students to work towards reducing health disparities around the world.
“Menstrual health is a topic that we’ve discussed in Public Health Beyond Borders, and it’s a topic that’s been especially important to me since going into the medical field, and I do want to advocate for women’s reproductive health,” said Pandey.
As a project leader for the PHBB, Pandey traveled to India in 2022 alongside PHBB faculty advisor Dr. Elizabeth Maring and her cohort. Leading up to their departure, Pandey, having her own experiences with the cultural taboos that perpetuate misinformation about menstruation, felt hesitant about how their work would be interpreted overseas. Meeting people where they are is a key value Pandey cites for engaging meaningful and truly beneficial cross-cultural exchange—whether on-the-ground overseas or virtually stateside. Additionally, cultural competency is something that Pandey prioritizes in this work, and actively wants to move away from the idea that western institutions are equipped to come in and solve problems without consulting or working with the communities they’re entering. This perspective is shared by other scholars we’ve interviewed, including Fulbright Scholar Dr. Candace M. Moore, who centered on reparative justice practices while investigating student affairs at higher education institutions in Ghana.
However, the community she engaged with in the Varanasi region of India was more open-minded than she originally anticipated—a mutual acknowledgement that each culture has something to offer to the other without judgment or an assertion that there is only one way to address this problem.
“It was interesting to see how people were willing to engage with the content very readily and able to discuss the implications [of menstrual health] both socially and biologically,” said Pandey.
After she returned to the U.S. for the spring 2023 semester, Pandey participated in a Global Classrooms course that investigates this very issue, Teaching Menstrual Health: Dispelling Myths and Misconceptions (FMSC265), also taught by Dr. Maring, former Fulbright Fellow. Under her tutelage and alongside the students of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in Varanasi, India, and their instructor, Dr. Kushwaha; Pandey and her international cohort worked to create informational deliverables in anticipation for their next return trip.
“There was a lot of discussion back and forth about our project because it involved choosing a medium in order to convey information about menstrual health to a target audience,” said Pandey.
This project-based signature course from Global Classrooms focuses on virtual cross-cultural exchange. Coming together to create these informational resources revealed important cultural differences between the partner institutions in the U.S. and India—an exigency for true collaboration in creating a solution to this multifaceted and personal issue. When it comes to distributing information on menstrual heath, Pandey and her group had to consider other factors that would impact how their content was received. Primarily, they had to examine how lifestyle norms of the U.S. and India would inform their approach. Pandey and her cohort at BHU turned their attention towards implementing community-based learning practices and thinking through formats that would support discussion and group engagement.
“When we were choosing our medium, the rest of my group members wanted to do an outdoor game that might be engaging for them [the communities in Varanasi], and I was thinking of doing a booklet—we settled on a comic book,” said Pandey.
For students who are doubtful about the value of a virtual international experience, Pandey had this to say:
“I would tell them that it’s a really exciting experience overall just getting to know students outside of the UMD area or DMV area since it’s definitely not a common experience to collaborate with students from other parts of the world,” said Pandey.
This direct peer-to-peer collaboration with students of international institutions, even while physically abroad, is something that can be difficult to come by for the American college student. With the Global Classrooms program, the shared goal of a semester-long project provides a structured opportunity for students to acquire multi-cultural knowledge of their areas of study, and form connections along the way. This established good-will enabled the students from UMD and BHU to speak openly about the challenging work ahead of them, including their own experiences with this established culture of silence.
“That really helped when it came to engaging in conversations because it was more open about what taboos exist. In general, it’s very uncomfortable for me to talk about menstruation because I’ve grown up in a household that kind of says not to talk about it,” said Pandey.
For students entering the healthcare field like Pandey and her cohort, cultural diversity is just as important as any other skill in providing patient care. Some advantages of increased representation in healthcare include increased patient comfort levels, a reduction in health disparities, and higher patient retention among providers. An application of multiculturalism in healthcare Pandey deployed overseas was understanding the differences in availability of certain menstrual products—the products that we have readily available in the U.S. such as tampons or menstrual cups are not as common, and it was important to understand that context in providing these educational resources to the communities they worked with in India.
“Making sure that we didn’t introduce something that they’re not familiar with, or that they cannot use was definitely a challenge,” said Pandey.
UMD’s relationships with international institutions, from BHU and beyond, indicate a systemic practice of sustainable partnerships. Drawing on the knowledge of their peers and instructors at BHU was crucial for the success of their comic book, which you can view below. This Global Classrooms course is one of many that seek to solve grand challenges all around the world, including MEIH607, which examines food safety and security with Cairo University in Egypt, and WGSS397, which examines protest and feminist movements alongside Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero in Argentina.
Looking towards the future for Pandey, in the fall 2023 semester, she will take over as president of the UMD chapter of Public Health Beyond Borders, and continue her advocacy work through follow up trips to India. It’s a reminder that between UMD and higher education institutions around the world that change is possible, and the best kind comes from collaboration.