The Tower of Babel in Period Literacy
A Towering Challenge
Have you ever heard of the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon? Chances are, you have experienced this before. The phenomenon occurs when you cannot quite seem to recall a familiar word, and yet you are aware of similar words and its meaning. It is like forgetting someone’s name but being able to remember the person’s face.
Here in Thailand, I am trying to give a name to the jagged, jarring face of period poverty in my own language. Without the words to describe period poverty in one’s mother tongue, the struggle to recall terms in describing this certain inequity during our “tip of the tongue” moments are a luxury that could not even be afforded.
For more than a millennium, language has been the cornerstone of literacy and means of communication. The mythological Babylonian Tower of Babel stood incomplete due to the people not being able to understand one another’s tongues, and thus, their collective purpose of construction despite the omnipresent need for progress in building the unfinished Tower. Linguistic diversity is beautiful, yet it presents an inevitable outcome of certain universal issues faced by global communities being lost in translation or merely lost, without translation.
For the past year, I have translated Thailand’s first ever Period Glossary and a short storybook on period. Both are digitally available, with the latter also published into the initial one hundred copies sent to an NGO teaching menstrual hygiene management to women and young girls in Thailand’s Deep South for distribution.
I have joined the World Literacy Foundation as an ambassador from June to August of this year out of a need to bring into perspective period literacy. The inability or challenges in reading or writing does not only hinder access to education, but also healthcare and rights. Most importantly, literacy or the lack thereof should not justify the infringement of rights and access to healthcare.
Red All Over, but yet to be Read All Over
What exactly is period literacy? Period literacy is the ability to understand, conceptualize, and comprehend menstruation-related information through means of reading, writing, and communication.
The lack of period literacy may potentially reflect the state of literacy itself and the complacency of accessibility in information pertaining to healthcare and rights. In fact, it was only 2020 that the Thai legal scholar Pedithep Youyuenyong published research in the Public Health Policy & Laws Journal on “The women and girls’ right of access menstrual hygiene products” which would be the first of its kind in Thai academia. Youyuenyong would go on to later publish “Policy Instruments for Promoting Access of Women and Girls to Menstrual Hygiene Products” in 2021, contributing to the rise of period literacy within the field, for Pawin Puthong would become the next Thai legal scholar to publish research in the CMU Journal of Law and Social Sciences on “Tackling Period Poverty with Tax Cuts and Social Welfares”.
What I have learned from my ambassadorship at the World Literacy Foundation is the myriad of intersectional literacy within the public sphere such as climate literacy and literacy as human rights. Founder of Climate Cardinals, an organization aiming to “make the climate movement more accessible to those who don’t speak English”, Sophia Kianna noted that “2 out of 5 adults in the world haven’t heard of climate change. Part of that is because a majority of scientific research about global warming is only written in English. So how do we change that? By helping more people access this critical information in their native language”. In the research paper titled “‘H’ is for Human Right: An Exploration of Literacy as Key Contributor to Indigenous Self-Determination” by Melissa Derby and Ngāti Ranginui acknowledges “the importance of acknowledging the broad scope of literacy beyond the bounds of dominant Western hegemony, and its salience to cultivating self-determination for indigenous peoples in the areas of health and well-being, community engagement, cultural imperatives, and lifelong learning.” A correlation observed by the World Literacy Foundation (2015) between literacy level, health outcome, individual income, educational outcome, ability for digital technology usage, and political participation, among others exists. Thus, it may be argued that literacy touches upon multiple facets of instruments and constituents of human rights.
The dynamic context of literacy aforementioned also rings true for menstrual equity and period literacy.
The stigmatization surrounding menstruation inhibit the need to create, engage, and utilize terminology in communicating menstruation-related information.This may lead to the lack of urgency in further comprehending and conceptualizing the implications of menstruation in the realm of rights and society.
The period storybooks translated, published, and distributed aims to normalize exchanges on menstruation and menstruation-related information. With terms equipped as tools for fostering a wider breadth of discourse on the biology of bleeding, the questions begged now are anticipated to transfer into greater complexity beyond what menstruation is to why does menstruation allude to equity and dignity.
My time at the World Literacy Foundation was invaluable as it has expanded the toolbox of instruments known to me in driving community engagement. Prior to the ambassadorship, my attempt at journalism has proven to be a fruitful yet more often than not limiting engagement of discourse because there is no seat at the table for those who cannot comprehend the need for discourse in the first place.
In redefining literacy, the only term that should be at the tip of the tongue is incomprehensible.
Reference: World Literacy Foundation (2015). The economic & social cost of illiteracy: A snapshot of illiteracy in a global context. Melbourne, Australia: World Literacy Foundation.
Year of Ambassadorship: 2022