Columbia Mailman Launches Free Course on the Global Menstrual Movement

November 17, 2021

Once viewed as a private matter only spoken about in whispers, menstruation is now the subject of a growing public health movement. Today, Columbia Mailman School’s GATE (Gender, Adolescent Transitions, and Environment) Program launched the world’s first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on the global menstrual movement.

Aimed at public health, development, and humanitarian professionals, policymakers, and students—as well as anyone interested in the subject—the free online course introduces key concepts in menstruation and menstrual health and hygiene (MHH), including global challenges and barriers that shape menstrual experiences, with an emphasis on low-resource and vulnerable populations around the world. Support for the course is provided by Columbia University's Office of the Provost and the Sid and Helaine Lerner MHM Faculty Support Fund.

“Despite growing global interest in menstruation as a critical issue, there are limited options to learn more about this important topic,” says Sociomedical Sciences Associate Professor Marni Sommer, a world-renowned authority on menstruation and GATE director. “Our course will contribute to filling this gap, with content to promote knowledge, understanding, and action, equipping the participants with the fundamental tools for engaging at local, national, and global levels.”

Course participants will learn about MHH program design and implementation, research, monitoring, and advocacy. Lessons also cover efforts to overcome menstrual stigma and barriers to access to menstrual products, education, and services. Instructors include Sommer, Maggie Schmitt, GATE associate director, and Caitlin Gruer, GATE program manager. They are joined by 21 guest lecturers representing 15 different countries, including experts from international NGOs, advocacy groups, governments, and universities, and research institutes.

The course takes a broad view of teaching menstrual equity beyond simply improving access to free menstrual products to people with few resources or removing the tampon tax. “Although such efforts are critical, our course takes a more holistic perspective, including the need for menstruation-supportive sanitation facilities and appropriate education on menstrual health and hygiene, topics that are also essential for all girls, women, and others who menstruate,” says Schmitt.

The GATE team worked with the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning to develop content for the course, including recording lectures and creating online assessments. The course is offered on edX, a platform for more than 3,000 MOOCs from more than 160 member universities. Students have the option to audit the self-paced course for free or to select the verified track to earn a certificate for a small fee. Columbia University already offers dozens of MOOCs, including two others at Columbia Mailman: Protecting Children in Humanitarian Settings and Fighting HIV with Antiretroviral Therapy: Implementing the Treat-All Approach.

In 2019, GATE members conducted a review of curricula of the top 20 U.S. public health schools, which found that of an estimated 5,000 courses assessed, only 28 included any menstruation-related topics. That year, they launched the Period Posse Presents webinar series for sharing best practices and new research from around the world. Sommer also teaches a Columbia Mailman course on menstruation. In the coming weeks, GATE is releasing a graphic novel-style book informed by research with young people across the country that seeks to empower adolescent girls with knowledge and practical tips on their changing bodies during puberty.  

“We are thrilled to have brought together such an incredible group of menstrual health and hygiene advocates, practitioners, and researchers to share their valuable expertise,” says Sommer of the new MOOC. “We believe in the power of learning from each other, including across countries, organizations, and research institutions and hope this course can catalyze critical dialogue and energy towards addressing menstrual health and hygiene issues across the world. Ultimately, we hope the course supports and motivates the development of a new generation of menstrual health and hygiene champions.”

Watch a short video introduction to the course: