Earlier this month, Merriam-Webster named ‘feminism’ as its word of the year. From women’s marches to the #MeToo movement, sexism that holds women back in their personal lives and professional careers was very much in focus in 2017.
Though discussed less often in this context, menstruation is associated with one of the most pervasive stigmas that holds back gender equality. The average woman menstruates for 3000 days in her lifetime, yet in every country, the shame and myths around menstruation contribute to this stigma. Menstruation is veiled in silence and is supposed to be invisible; menstruating women and girls are supposed to be invisible and silent too. They are subject to many restrictions and discriminated against simply because they are menstruating.
Fighting a pervasive taboo
The taboo of menstruation results in humiliation and indignity for millions of women and girls. Stigma around menstruation is a violation of human rights including rights to non-discrimination, equality, health and privacy. The consequences of these taboos hit hardest in the least developed parts of the world, where silence translates into fear, psychosocial stresses, exclusion and a lack of services and education for women and girls. Disastrous impacts like these are noted by Leo Heller, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation.
Said Heller in a 2015 report, “Inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene in schools particularly affect girls. Some girls simply do not use the toilet in school because of poor sanitation facilities and often the absence of menstrual hygiene management. They do not eat or drink water until they go home. A girl I interviewed said that there is a disposal service, but it is difficult to manage menstrual hygiene without water available in school. Menstrual hygiene management that ensures privacy and human dignity is an important but often forgotten component of the human rights to water and sanitation.”
Making women and girls happier and healthier
Menstrual hygiene management refers to managing menstruation in a safe and hygienic way. It is a perfect example of a strategic multiplier with measurable impact in health, education, skills, jobs and work, financial autonomy, the environment, consumer goods and the economy. It helps to break, in our development parlance, “gendered social norms.”
For girls and women, it means a healthier and more confident adolescence, safety, dignity, privacy, better school attendance and learning outcomes, greater mobility and opportunities and eventually delayed marriage, age of first conception and greater self-determination and well-being.
Lifting the veil
WSSCC, a United Nations-hosted organization, works on menstrual hygiene management on multiple levels. These include action research, capacity building, policy transformation and ensuring the voices of the most vulnerable are heard.
Governments, for example, can introduce policies to ensure that girls and women have separate, private toilet facilities in schools and at the workplace, access to essential products such as cloths or pads and the means to dispose of and clean them. Most importantly, women and girls need correct information about menstruation, free from myths and ridicule, ideally before the onset of puberty. Information encourages empowerment and informed choices. Success is being seen. For example, Cameroon recently adopted national strategies that explicitly include MHM in their goals.
Critically, national and community leaders must speak out to change attitudes, upend customs that restrain menstruating women and girls and promote holistic education about periods.
It’s time to make safe and hygienic menstruation a global priority, with dedicated funding, policies and strategies. By lifting the veil of silence, we open the door to action that can transform the lives of women and girls around the world.
Virginia Kamowa, Sr. Technical Officer, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), [email protected]