Written by Dr. Emily Wilson-Smith, Chair at Irise International

Although half the global population has menstruated since the beginning of time, it has been a taboo topic in cultures across the world for almost as long. The word ‘taboo’ itself may even originate from a Polynesian term for menstruation, ‘tupua.’ Recent grass roots activism in the development community, including the first ever international Menstrual Hygiene Day has highlighted the impact of menstruation in low-income settings on women’s rights to health and education. However, it has remained largely neglected by International Agents ostensibly working towards the realisation of universal human rights.

Irise researcher, Robyn Boosey (@_RobynB) searched over 800 human rights documents, including 17 core international human rights treaties and reports produced by the Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Committee for the Rights of the Child, and the Special Procedures Mandates on the Right to Education, the Right to Health and the Right to Water and Sanitation for references to menstruation. What she found was an overwhelming silence:

Image c/o Irise International
Image c/o Irise International

Where menstruation was referenced or alluded to it was often ambiguous and lacking in detail or specific recommendations.

By remaining silent on menstruation, Human Rights Bodies reinforce the taboo and the perception that menstruation is shameful and private. This has devastating implications for the fulfilment of the human rights of women and girls, particularly in low-income countries. Poor menstrual hygiene affects girls’ right to health as the taboo means that adequate health education is not delivered. Girls engage in unhygienic menstrual practices including using dirty and damp rags which may cause irritation or infection. This impacts on girls’ right to education with many girls reporting missing school during menstruation due to inadequate facilities or struggling to concentrate during lessons due to fears their skirt will become stained by menstrual blood. It affects women’s rights to work in a similar way with a study of factory workers in Bangladesh finding that 60% were using freshly dyed rags from the factory floor as menstrual cloths and that 73% were missing 6 days of work a month.

These menstrual-related human rights violations not only hold women and girls back as individuals but also prevent them from becoming active members in their communities, causing far reaching consequences for economic growth and development. As long as we are afraid to say the word “menstruation” in the political sphere these human rights violations will continue to go undiscussed and unaddressed.

However, the International Human Rights System also has great potential for breaking this vicious cycle of silence and for offering a refreshing perspective on the rights of women and girls. The current focus on female health in the context of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections sends a message that women’s bodies only become valuable when their health has wider implications. Even in the context on menstrual hygiene and girls’ education, a focus is placed on the economic benefits of keeping girls in school. Menstrual hygiene gives us the opportunity to provide education to women and girls outside of the context of sex and its consequences. This knowledge empowers them to make decisions about their own bodies rather than just dealing with the consequences of their biology. Breaking the menstruation taboo and calling for better menstrual hygiene and education is a chance for the international community to say to women and girls around the world that they matter because they are people with as much right to reach their full potential as any other person on the planet.

Learn more:

IMG_20140526_133535~2Emily has a BSc in International Health from the University of Bristol and a medical degree from the University of Sheffield. She worked as a doctor for a year and now works for Irise full-time in Uganda.  She has nearly ten years of experience of women’s health and development. Previous research includes an evaluation in Kenya for the Kenyan Orphan Project and research into women’s health in Madagascar with Access Madagascar Initiative. Emily led the Irise pilot work in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda in 2011 to  2014. She is now working to develop our Freedom Franchise Model, conduct our large scale study into the impact of menstrual hygiene on school girls’ absenteeism and is soon to take up a post as Research and Teaching Associate at Kampala International University. Follow her on Twitter @emswsmith.

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