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Written for Irise by Cathy Stephen – WASH Advisor at Plan UK.

How many nicknames do you know for a women’s time of the month? Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Aunt Flo
  • On the Rag
  • I’m at a Red Light
  • Surfing the Crimson Tide
  • Checked into Red Roof Inn
  • I’m having the painters in tomorrow
  • Riding the cotton pony
  • Curse of Dracula
  • Leak Week
  • My Dot
  • On the blob
  • Miss Scarlett has returned to Tara
  • Smoking a lady cigar
  • Monthly Oil Change

Few people want to talk directly about the topic of menstruation. It’s labelled as a topic for schools to deal with or for women (quietly, behind closed doors please) to talk about. Try asking a man in your office or home about it and they will most likely find it uncomfortable and awkward.

Women and adolescent girls around the world spend about 3,500 days of their life menstruating, but it remains a taboo topic in their lives. Since it is experienced and managed by girls and women, it often has a quieter voice and a lower priority for development projects.

Some of the stories collected for Plan’s menstrual project in Uganda included:

“…When you are in your period, you are not supposed to walk near a ground nut garden or pumpkin plant or even touch a Jackfruit tree. If you do, the plant will die…” [A respondent during a focus group discussion explained in Ogengo village, Uganda]

“Ladies in their menstrual periods look beautiful because they tend to become soft and browner than their usual color.” [A boy responds during a group discussion with boys at Ngelecom Osukuru sub-county, Uganda]

These beliefs are not unusual in many countries where Plan works. There are myths, misconceptions and taboos around even talking about menstruation, let alone starting to consider practical ways to support girls through the logistics of managing the monthly flow of blood without embarrassment or stigma.

As international charities, we have become increasingly confident talking publicly about the smelly business of faeces. We have devised approaches and tools devoted to supporting communities to become open defecation free and influenced governments to develop campaigns on the importance of washing hands to reduce the spread of disease.

But on the issue of menstrual hygiene management, we are “tongue-tied.” We are silent in the area of policy and influencing with governments, we’re quiet in funding projects that address menstruation directly and often we’re reticent when it comes to tackling this issue in communities we work with.  It’s just not a priority.

This year Plan is joining the conversation about menstruation because it truly matters to the health, education and dignity of adolescent girls. This issue is should matter to families and organizations supporting the development of communities.

Plan International highlighted three important themes on this year’s Menstrual Hygiene Day (28th May) and held awareness activities in UK, US, Australia, Indonesia, Uganda and other Plan operational countries. We focused on 3 key areas:

  1. Overcoming stigma and taboos surrounding menstruation

By talking about menstrual hygiene in creative safe spaces (through radio or community radio) and increasing knowledge of boys, girls, men and women on the reality of menstruation and how, especially school-aged children can be supported.

This needs to be advocated to be included in schools alongside sexual reproductive health education.

  1. Increasing access to and investment in safe and sanitary productsIrise Photo 1 and facilities

Only 12 percent of girls and women have access to sanitary products around the world. The rest rely on materials such as old, dirty rags, newspaper, leaves, dirt, and other unhygienic materials that often lead to infection and embarrassment due to leaks and odour.

In Uganda, where Plan is working specifically on menstrual management:

  • 28% of girls in Uganda do not go to school when they have their period (20% of whole school year)
  • They stay at home because they don’t have access to hygienic and affordable sanitary pads
  • 18% of the girls in Uganda leave school before graduating. In Lira district this percentage is almost 36%
  • Of those girls almost 46% do not go to school because there are no proper WASH facilities

There is need for private latrines for girls, water for washing, and access to locally appropriate sanitary products for girls to reduce absenteeism from school.  Selling affordable locally made pads can also help sellers to earn an income in their communities.

Irise Photo2

  1. Engaging men and boys

Educating adolescent boys on the challenges and struggles girls face could help decrease their misconceptions, while at the same time helping them become more understanding and supportive brothers, husbands, and fathers.

In developing countries, fathers are often the breadwinners and decision-makers in families. Educating them about menstrual hygiene is crucial because they determine the budget for sanitary products.

Plan supported Menstrual Hygiene Day campaign by raising the issue of the importance of Menstrual Hygiene and working with Irise International to encourage people to talk about it on social media and pledge to break the silence around menstruation. We had a fantastic response and the conversations are still going on. We’re excited to see how much can be achieved before Menstrual Hygiene Day 2016!

Plan is implementing menstrual-specific programming in seven countries throughout Africa and Asia. There is a long way to go so today – go on girls, talk about your monthly oil change (and don’t forget to include the boys!).

Cathy Stephen works for Plan UK as their WASH adviser. She has 10 years of experience working for a range of large and small NGOs across Southern, West and East Africa, most recently working as the technical adviser for the Liberia WASH Consortium. Cathy has strong interest in sanitation and hygiene behaviour change communication, gender and learning in the WASH sector. Plan UK is currently implementing WASH projects in 14 countries around the world with a large and complex sanitation and hygiene project in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

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