The tagline “let’s talk periods” found its surprising home in elite men’s sports last week. This was a major male franchise, the IPL’s Rajasthan Royals, getting their players to open up about menstruation. To call this a landmark moment would not be an overstatement.
In a hugely progressive move, the Royals last week announced their new shirt sponsor was Indian sanitary towel brand Niine. When their cricket season begins in the United Arab Emirates next month (relocated due to Covid-19), their team – including England’s Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Jofra Archer and Australia’s Steve Smith – will wear their logo on their kits. The words ‘with her, we rise’ will be printed on their backs.
The announcement was made following India’s prime minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech that very day, in which he spoke of the taboo that exists around women’s health in the country. Royals’ Executive Chairman Ranjit Barthakur said his team aimed to “make real change” by aligning itself with Niine, and it was an effort to support female empowerment in the country.
Like in many parts of the world, in India menstruating women are often ostracised and excluded from society, due to stereotypical prejudices deeming women unclean. India has the second-largest menstruating population globally, estimated at over 300 million, and for many women during the week of their period they are blocked from religious ceremonies, social gatherings and even excluded from the kitchen or cooking meals. WaterAid and Unicef found that more than one-third of girls in South Asia miss school days during their period – and that extends to other countries where misconceptions and period poverty exist too, even in the UK.
One of the Royals’ most recognisable players, India’s Robin Uthappa, called it “special” to be a part of tackling this problem: “We must get rid of such stigmas that hinder the progression and growth of our society. I personally feel… not talking openly about menstruation is a major issue. I feel extremely happy to be part of this vehicle for change and I’m sure having Niine on our jerseys is going to create the awareness that we need to get the message across.”
With cricket the most watched sport in India, for the Royals to take on such a taboo issue directly shows a social consciousness that is not often found in partnerships made in men’s sports, where betting companies often dominate shirt sponsorship deals.
On social media, hundreds applauded the Royals for the refreshing move, with England women player Danni Wyatt giving it the thumbs up. “It’s amazing,” Wyatt told Telegraph Sport. “I think times are changing which is great to see, and credit to the Royals. They replied to [my comment] on Twitter saying this is just the start, so well done to them.”
There have been a handful of comparable examples of sports teams pivoting to accommodate their female audiences in recent years. A couple of years ago, a campaign by On The Ball – led by three female football fans – got Celtic, Barnsley and Brighton football clubs among others to provide sanitary products free of charge at their stadiums, to make matchdays more inclusive. Then, in a different but not completely unrelated move, in 2018 NBA team the LA Clippers signed a three-year $20 million sponsorship deal with “female empowerment” dating app Bumble.
A men’s team recognising that sport is not exclusively consumed by men – through their partnerships or their actions – should not necessarily be headline news. But with examples so few and far between it is a big deal, the power of which cannot be underestimated.
The influence men’s sport has in the way of millions of fans and huge financial clout truly can change perceptions. Opening up what have traditionally been exclusively male spaces to women’s issues – be they health-based, social or both – is no small act and it should be amplified.