While menstruation is a process as normal as excretion or digestion, it is a subject constantly entangled in secrecy and misinformation.
Periods are commonly perceived as ritually unclean or physically impure, and persistent treatment of menstruation as a hush-hush taboo has forced women into seclusion, influenced them to miss or drop out of school, and restricted them on what to eat, drink or wear. Manifestly perverse attitudes towards periods moreover encourage dangerous menstrual hygiene practices like using old cloths, cotton wool, notebook pages, and leaves from trees as substitutes for menstrual cups, sanitary pads, or tampons, increasing risks of infections and blood-borne diseases that will take their toll on eventual maternal health. Adverse effects of neglecting menstrual hygiene management (MHM) in developing societies also extend to a psycho-social level – women and girls report experiencing higher stress levels and sustained shame throughout their periods.
Clearly, the silence and stigmas that develop around menstruation are inimical to the empowerment of women. It is crucial that we shatter them. Policymakers and politicians must realize that in perpetuating cultural taboos against menstruation, they inevitably impede positive developments in gender equality. Women must not only be offered the full entitlement to effective menstrual hygiene, but also not be denied their fundamental human rights of WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), healthcare, education, dignity, and choice.
Going forward, several “best practices” for menstrual hygiene management must be furthered and implemented. These include:
- Creating an atmosphere conducive to discussion about menstruation and hygiene practices by fostering understanding that menstruation is a normal part of life and facilitating discussions that help women from different walks of life to share experiences about menstrual hygiene management, so as to reduce the heavy cultural and social baggage attached to menstruation.
- Developing a feminine health education curriculum, which involves how to use sanitary pads, lessons that prepare women physically and emotionally for menstruation, and informative sessions about issues in nutrition, pregnancy, contraception, and general health, so as to raise the level of information and knowledge about periods.
- Investing in infrastructure to manage menstruation, including separate latrines for girls and boys in schools and public spaces, an adequate supply of water, and appropriate washing materials, so as to enable hygienic practices and ensure that women and girls continue attending school even when they are menstruating.
- Ensuring effective and environmentally safe management of used sanitary products, like disposal units with incinerators in toilets and sanitation blocks, sanitary pits for soiled napkins, implemented at the community level.
- Encouraging the use of commercial sanitary pads, which should see centralized and localized governments aiming to reduce the indirect taxes levied on sanitary pads, collaborating with existing local initiatives that develop and manage menstrual protection products, and imparting knowledge about local resources that can be used to produce affordable sanitary napkins, so as to avoid using and reusing old cloths, and reducing risks of infections associated with unsanitary menstrual hygiene practices.
Adopting and sustaining these promising practices is not only key to improving the women’s reproductive health, but also an important eradicator of structural gender equality.
To take immediate action and empower women, you can take the following steps:
- Join Girls’ Globe’s conversation on Twitter using #MenstruationMatters.
- Read Girls’ Globe’s posts on reproductive health and menstruation.
- Volunteer with or make a donation to Pasand, an organization that offers women the opportunity to make choices about their own health through affordable sanitary protection and feminine health education, started by undergraduates at Princeton University.
- Learn more about WASH United’s work related to menstrual hygiene management, or donate to their initiatives.
Cover image courtesy of The World Bank.