The May 2018 Johannesburg MHM Symposium
Other key takeaways I had in response to the conference:
- The critical role of the UNFPA-ESARO. Collaboration on complicated issues rarely occurs without leadership and (some degree of) ownership by a respected group that is willing to subsidize the coordination costs of bringing people together. The UNFPA ESARO rose to that occasion due at least partly to capable leadership from within, and made this significant gathering happen. It seemed to guide the proceedings without dominating the content, which can be a difficult balance to achieve. Other issues have not always had such leadership (or resources to pull off big events such as these) and have sometimes paid a price for it.
- The continual need to correct unfounded claims about MHM. The conference featured well-measured claims by scholars and an incredibly useful conference report by Siri Tellier and Maria Hyttel of WoMena (and commissioned by the UNFPA specifically for the conference) that worked to mute overclaiming regarding evidence of MHM & infection rates, school attendance, etc. by showing the limits of evidence on such issues. Nonetheless, claims with minimal evidence to back them up regularly reemerged in different sessions and in audience comments, which occasionally seemed to serve to reinforce questionable information.
- The challenge of government product safety and quality standards. The need for government standards was often discussed in the context of preventing the emergence of ineffective and/or unsafe menstrual products on the marketplace. The potential downsides to regulation were not addressed to my knowledge (especially the tendency of larger producers to dominate in the development of such standards in order to benefit from them relative to their smaller competitors, at least in other industries). To my eye, a focus on keeping government regulation transparent and open to all levels of stakeholders seems important, and increasing calls for “more regulation” should perhaps include some caveats of that nature.
- The importance of networking across borders. Many individual entrepreneurs described the challenges of working by themselves or with small staffs on an issue many in their local areas do not want to talk about, pointing out that they are inherently competing with many of the other entrepreneurs in their home countries for market share. To meet with others doing similar work elsewhere gave them a sense of comradery and shared purpose that some feel they lack on a day-to-day basis at home. Additionally, it helped to build some useful networks across individuals and organizations that might not otherwise exist.
- The challenge of intellectual property theft for sharing between entrepreneurs, and its implications for collaboration. During the symposium, I heard many references to intellectual property challenges on the part of entrepreneurs. The experiences they mentioned ranged from the common challenge of new design innovations quickly showing up in those of competitors (thus undercutting the value and potential value of R&D investments), to the hiring of staff by competitors to get inside information, to full-scale copying of product design and promotion messages. Some – but not most – of these cases resulted in lawsuits, which is unsurprising in light of the financial barriers and burden of proof expected by most legal systems. At IMHER, we lack the capacity to sort through those accounts, so draw no judgement about who did what. But it did become clear that concerns about copying are affecting decisions about product design, willingness to invest in R&D, and willingness to openly share information that could help other entrepreneurs succeed in their efforts.
Continuing Collaboration: the AHMHM
The full range of contributions are unknown. But there are clues that the symposium did important work that go beyond the significant press it generated, which may have itself helped to continue the wave of worldwide attention to this issue.
One critical direct outgrowth of the symposium has been the development of the new African Coalition for Menstrual Health Management (see also the first ACMHM newsletter which reports on the first meeting.
I attended the first ACMHM leadership meeting, held in Johannesburg in December 2018. It was launched initially by the UNFPA ESARO, but much of the early decision making was designed to establish a coalition structure. The ACMHM and its ambitious plan of action has been taking shape in the intervening months, with a good deal of expertise and ambition to move MHM forward into the next decade. That first ACMHM meeting focused on the kind of systematic strategic planning and clear focus on organizational structure that will help to harness the energy of the initial symposium into action.
We will continue to report here on developments with the ACMHM, as it works to reach out beyond the starting group and to all stakeholders operating in this sector.
Filling Information Gaps: Enter IMHER
For me and for IMHER, both the May UNFPA symposium and the December ACMHM conference this year reinforced the need to have repositories of freely-accessible information about MHM available to all who might need it.
People in the MHM sector are used to working with little available information, so it may take some time to make full use of these resources. But the relative novelty of — and excitement about — the sharing of information that regularly came up at these meetings made the need clear.
Perhaps most importantly, as this sector grows, and as the information as its core gets increasingly voluminous and complex, it is clear that information on this topic needs to be disbursed, organized, and synopsized by a number of different entities. The stakes are too high to rely on any single repository, or any single holder of information, or even just a few. IMHER is looking forward to being one of those voices.
Please comment below with your own reflections on the May 2018 symposium!