Guest post by Danielle Keiser
Summary: Menstrual Hygiene Day is not only about the biological process of growing up into a woman, but also about addressing the challenges that exist in many developing countries with regards to managing menstruation safely and hygienically. Such challenges include potential vaginal infections caused by poor access to soap and water and toilets, inadequate or unhygienic sanitary protection materials, or infrequent cleaning or changing of these materials. In many cases, this results in adolescent girls missing school and women missing work. Moreover, the continued silence around menstruation paired with limited access to factual guidance at home and in schools results in millions of women and girls having very little knowledge about what is happening to their bodies when they menstruate and how to deal with it.
Is ‘hygiene’ a negative word?
Menstrual Hygiene Day, oh, be some other name! As Juliet famously said about a rose with regards to Romeo being a Montague, what is in a name? That which we call hygiene by any other name would still be (according to the Oxford Dictionary) “the conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness”, would it not?
Since we launched the initiative to make the 28th of May Menstrual Hygiene Day, we at WASH United have undoubtedly started the conversation about menstruation, with social media buzzing as to why #MenstruationMattersand worldwide events and activities set to take place by many of our 135 partner organizations. One recurring conversation has revolved around disagreement with the term ‘hygiene’, a term that has been criticized for not being ‘period positive’ and doing little to ‘honor the menstrual process’.
I’d like to take the time to explain why we chose the word hygiene, focusing on how optimal Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) conditions, or more specifically, access to clean water and soap, toilets, sanitary protection materials and factual guidance are prerequisites to enabling women and girls to embrace their periods and feel positive about the whole experience. When menstruation is managed in privacy, with safety and dignity, women and girls are much more likely to develop the comfort and confidence needed to participate in daily activities. And since all human rights stem from the fundamental right to human dignity, when women and girls are forced into seclusion, taunted and teased, or fear leaking due to inadequate menstrual hygiene management (MHM), dignity is difficult to maintain.
4 reinforcing thoughts: It’s about hygiene.
1. Imagine that while menstruating, you are either not allowed to bathe or you simply don’t have a shower to rinse your body.
In parts of Kashmir, India, some menstruating women are prohibited from using water sources and advised to stay away from flowing water in general. Also, they are not allowed to look at their reflections in the water.
2. Imagine unexpectedly starting your period in the middle of an important math lesson. Is your first thought, I need to go to the toilet? Do you go to the one dirty latrine that is shared with 65 other boys and girls, without a lock? And what will you do with your stained panties? There’s no hand-washing facility and not even a wastebasket to throw them away in.
There are still 2.5 billion people who do not have access to adequate sanitation. If roughly half of the world’s population is female, that’s 1.25 billion girls and women who cannot simply ‘go to the ladies’ room’ to check on themselves and change their pad, tampon or cup in privacy.
3. Imagine having no idea, or a very faint one, about what a period is, why it happens, or how to take care of it when it happens.
Worldwide, many girls feel a ‘culture of silence’ around menstruation, including in their families. Often, male family members are clueless about menstruation, treating it as something negative or a curse. Girls do not feel comfortable even talking to their mothers about the subject, and many teachers only skim the surface on lessons about puberty and reproduction because it makes them uncomfortable.
4. Imagine that you didn’t bring any pads/cloth to absorb the blood that is now running down your leg, either because pads/cloth are difficult to find in your village or you and your family have no money to pay for them.
Only 12% of girls and women in India have access to sanitary materials, a report by AC Nielsen and Plan India found in 2010. The rest tend to rely on old pieces of cloth, husks, dried leaves and grass, ash, sand or newspapers.
A menstrual movement defined
We acknowledge, admire and personally support feminist-leaning perspectives on menstruation, such as Gloria Steinem’s views and websites like Occupy Menstruation that encourage women and girls to get in touch with their natural cycles, feel empowered and take pride in womanhood. This is absolutely necessary.
However, based on intensive discussions with our partners and our own experiences in Asia and Africa, girls and women are not interested in ‘loving their periods’ or ‘celebrating menstruation’. Rather, they want to feel like periods are ‘normal’ and that they are not shamed, cast aside or restricted from doing the things they would normally do. These sentiments are especially evident in women and girls who, for all their lives have lived without factual guidance or access to adequate sanitary materials and instead have lived with a deafening silence, isolating taboos and harsh stigmas around menstruation to the degree that most North American or European women find difficult to imagine.
Using just the word ‘menstruation’ or ‘period’ would fall gravely short of highlighting all these different barriers that needs to be addressed. ‘Menstrual Hygiene Management’ or MHM, is a well-understood terminology in the area of development work, particularly in WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene). We already felt a bit uncomfortable dropping the ‘management’ after ‘menstrual hygiene’, but the shorter terminology is comprehendible while also acknowledging the need for sanitary products. ‘Menstrual Health’ was briefly considered, but waived because there is a wide lack of data on health in developing countries.
Lastly, as Menstrual Hygiene Day is an advocacy initiative, the key target audiences for the day are:
- Media to reach society at large – to highlight the challenges of women and girls in Africa/Asia, and contribute to breaking the silence and debunking myths
- Policy makers and donors – in the areas of education, WASH, gender, and reproductive health who may consider integrating MHM into policies as well as funding projects in developing countries
- Partners working in MHM – wishing to strengthen their networks and share knowledge among each other
- Individuals – interested in raising awareness and starting the conversation via social media and beyond.
The vision of MH Day is to create a world in which every girl and women can manage her period in privacy, safety and with dignity wherever she is. And when these conditions are met in the not-so-distant future and menstruation becomes normal and free from social stigma, we will gladly re-think the name. By that time, our hope is that taboos have been smashed, there is 100% access to affordable and hygienic materials and menstruation is no longer preventing women from reaching their goals. As impatient optimists, our hope is that the need for a Menstrual Hygiene Day will be wonderfully obsolete.
I hope these answers were satisfactory and helped shed some light on the importance of hygiene in relation to menstruation worldwide.
If you’d like to learn more, please see the Menstrual Hygiene Day website, and especially our Menstrual Hygiene Day factsheets and new infographic. And don’t forget to sign up for the MHM newsletter so you can continue to help break the silence about this neglected issue.