First talk in the STS Seminar Series explores the politics of menstrual hygiene innovation in international development

Shobita Parthasarathy

Shobita Parthasarathy

The the first talk of the 2020-21 Research Seminar Series in Science & Technology Studies (STS) takes place on Sept. 15 from 12:30 to 2 p.m. and features Prof. Shobita Parthasarathy, who is professor of Public Policy and Women's Studies and director, Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program  at the University of Michigan. Parthasarathy's talk is titled “An Anti-Inclusivity Machine? The Politics of Menstrual Hygiene Innovation in International Development.”

All events will be delivered all academic year via Zoom, contact the Seminar Series Coordinator Connor Douglas prior to the talk for the Zoom link, he can be reached by email at cd512@yorku.ca.

Now in its 27th year, the series has hosted hundreds of experts from across Canada and around the world presenting on a wide range of STS-related topics. The talks are free and open to the public, and STS majors are encouraged to attend this and all events in the series.

Parthasarathy's talk analyzes the political dimensions of the turn to inclusive innovation in international development. Governments, international and domestic NGOs, and entrepreneurs now advocate for new technologies and services designed explicitly for, and sometimes even by, poor citizens, in order to improve the fortunes of the “Global South.” Such innovation, they argue, is likely to be more effective and accepted among the poor.

This is a laudable effort, but Parthasarathy suggests that it is limited and problematic in key ways. Based on an interpretive case study analysis of menstrual hygiene management (MHM) in India, Parthasarathy demonstrates that the affordable sanitary pad and MHM awareness sessions developed as innovative solutions are, in essence, “anti-inclusivity machines.” Even as MHM researchers and innovators claim to hear women’s needs and priorities, they reinforce an understanding of poor girls and women as ignorant, primitive, irresponsible, and dependent on Western science, technology, and markets for empowerment. And as funders and policymakers praise grassroots MHM innovators, they are reinforcing a Western definition of innovation and innovators, which emphasizes synthetic, scalable, and commodifiable inventions while denigrating and even erasing women’s approaches to menstruation, both historical and current.

The talk concludes that in order for international development to achieve its inclusivity goals, it must develop more open-ended approaches to eliciting citizen needs and priorities, take seriously the logics and knowledge systems that underlie indigenous approaches to a problem, and most importantly develop a deeper understanding of how and why poor girls and women innovate and then use this knowledge to rethink the structure of inclusive innovation efforts.

Unless otherwise specified, all seminars in this series will take place on Tuesdays via Zoom.

The series is sponsored by York University’s Department of Science & Technology Studies, Faculty of Science, and coordinated by members of the department. For more information about the Research Seminar Series in Science & Technology Studies, contact Professor Conor Douglas at cd512@yorku.ca or visit sts.info.yorku.ca/seminar-series.

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