Cookhouse Confidential: Menstruation in a Tropical Paradise

Marshall Islands – Pure blue ocean waters, coconut trees lining the horizon and untouched beaches scattered across hundreds of kilometers of ocean. It sounds like a tropical paradise, and is a tropical paradise, for some, some of the time.

I’ve been living in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) off and on for the past decade, living in the outer islands and Majuro, traveling on boats and planes for hours, sometimes days. Take it from me ladies, sanitation facilities are few and far in between!

Menstruation and practices around menstruation are buried deep within the many layers of Marshallese culture. It underpins how every day actions are shaped, yet it is not frequently discussed. Sometimes women have access to sanitary napkins, but often they just make do with cut up disposable diapers, or scraps of material.

Since menstruation is seen as a ‘women’s issue’ it is taboo to discuss in mixed company.  In the RMI, particularly on the outer islands, cooking is done outside in a separate cookhouse and is often a gathering place for women to tell tales and relax. Thus the cookhouse has become a private space to talk about women’s health, in confidence.

I spend a lot of time talking to women’s groups and we’ve never mentioned the one thing that happens to all of us once a month or thereabouts.   So I talked to some friends and colleagues here at IOM and we decided to do something about it. That’s how Cookhouse Confidential was born.

It began as an informal working group of women in the RMI – both locals and ex-pats – who work in governmental, inter-governmental, and non-governmental sectors. We began talking about Menstrual Health Management over coffee on Friday afternoons and from there developed the idea of Cookhouse Confidential and the potential for education initiatives and research methodologies.

Recently the President, Dr. Hilda Heine – yes, the first female President of the RMI –  declared a State of Disaster to address the harshest drought in recorded history due to El Nino. IOM reacted by requesting a rapid assessment of women’s health needs in times of disaster to prepare for adequate response.

Me and my good friend Brooke Takala Abraham of Marshall Islands Women’s Research Initiative (MIWRI)  have devised a research proposal with the assistance of our Disaster Preparedness of Effective Response Chief of Party Mark Adams. The initiative was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). 

With a team of well-trained women field researchers, MIWRI conducted a rapid assessment on the atolls of Majuro and Arno using Indigenous Methodology (to create a safe space where which women could voice their needs and the needs of their families. From Friday coffee talk to the field, Cookhouse Confidential  quite literally became a research space and research methodology that will lead to practical and culturally appropriate implementation of hygiene support in times of disaster or displacement.

“This development is significant to our communities in the RMI as it re-centres traditional ways of knowledge gathering as opposed to western methodologies favored by outside development and aid organizations” says Brooke Abraham of MIWRI. “This democratization of research leads to improved service delivery while empowering women at the community level. In Marshallese custom, women are referred to as jined kibed. Translated, this attribute of culture means that a mother (jined) is the rudder (kibed) of a family. Her well being directly impacts family dynamics much like the rudder of a canoe.”

IOM is planning a second phase of the project, partnering with Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI), that will help identify the appropriate non-food items needed during disasters, particularly menstrual hygiene products during the current drought and future events.