It is very exciting to be speaking this week at the Women Deliver event in Copenhagen. The conference is the place to be for concrete discussion and examination of the rights of women and girls around the world and covers a host of topics from education, health and gender rights, to legal rights, land rights, and FGM.
Each topic presents an opportunity for change but, for me, one of this year’s standout issues is getting schools and local governments to consider how girls manage their periods. It can be an uncomfortable subject, but it’s a crucial one for measuring progress in girls’ education and rights.
Staggeringly, over 1 billion women and girls do not have access to safe and clean toilets to go to at all, let alone when they’re on their period. This means girls often go into bushes or hidden places when it’s dark to relieve themselves or change their sanitary wear, violating their dignity and privacy and often putting them at risk of sexual or physical violence.
During the day, attending school can become problematic if there is nowhere for girls to manage their periods in safety, with dignity. Imagine not being able to close the door on the world to deal with your period, particularly if you live in a culture that stigmatises that time of the month. So some girls opt out of school, meaning that their education is compromised – the education that for them is often the only hope of a future free from poverty.
If they don’t complete their schooling, girls are at risk of early marriage, early pregnancy, and a continued cycle of poverty, alongside the ill health that comes from having to go without clean water and sanitation.
And that’s not all. There are so many taboos and stigma surrounding menstruation in many countries – myths that might mean they are not allowed to enter the kitchen, to cook, even to eat the same food or sleep under the same roof as their family in some cases. That’s totally unacceptable and an infringement of their human rights.
These facts and stats may come as a shock to some – but sadly it comes as no surprise to me.
Growing up in Kenya, I saw the effect of menstruation on my friends’ confidence.
Because some of them could not afford sanitary towels, they ended up using cloths and this affected their self-esteem. They would literally go into hibernation. Using cloths during menses is not safe because it leads to vaginal infections if the cloths are not well cleaned. They are also a source of embarrassment. Once in a while the cloths would fall out and the shame would affect the girls’ confidence. In 2012, a Kenyan television network aired a story on girls from Migori – a town in Western Kenya – who were prostituting to buy sanitary towels.
It broke my heart but I do understand that this is the reality for many girls out there. Girls want an education, and menstruation should never be a hindrance because it is a biological cycle that should be embraced, and not viewed as a shame.
This is still the case for many girls around the world. Elaine is 14 years old and lives in Madagascar. She’s lived in the area south of Antsirabe since 2001 when her family moved there, to escape a violent local tribe who had attacked her shopkeeper mother.
When she first arrived in Madagascar, there was no water point and only two old unsafe latrines, so she and her fellow pupils at school were forced to use open areas around the school to relieve themselves and, later, manage their periods – or to go home. Elaine would miss school for three days at a time during her period because there was no water to wash with nearby and finding water would take more than an hour.
However, since intervention by international NGO WaterAid and its local partners, Elaine’s school now has a new bathroom for girls. It has running water so they can wash and a locking door to maintain privacy. She now says proudly:
“I don’t miss school for [my period] anymore. I like going to school because I get learnings and I don’t get tricked by people because I am learned. Teaching is the best because this is the best heritage – the best thing someone can have is learnings.”
If that quote alone doesn’t encourage us to make a change, I don’t know what will. WaterAid’s #ifmenhadperiods campaign brilliantly captured the imagination of people around the globe last summer as it poked fun at what the world would be like if those in power—men—experienced menstruation like most females do. Would men hide away ashamed, miss school because no-one had thought to provide a safe toilet? Or, as WaterAid envisaged, would periods come out of the closet and be dealt with in a matter-of-fact fashion, even celebrated? We will never know.
But we do know that many girls face humiliation, embarrassment, restrictions on movement and food, missed education, and even violence because of societal and gender norms that tell us their periods are dirty and shameful. By tackling this issue head on we can help keep girls in school around the world, in turn empowering them to avoid early marriage, to participate in productive labour, and stay healthier, all of which reduces the likelihood of their children being born into poverty.
No woman or girl should have to manage her period without access to clean, safe, private toilets and washing facilities, and subsequently compromise their future – or that of their children. Menstruation is completely natural and an experience shared by half the world’s population. All of us—whether we are focused on education, sanitation, adolescent girls, or basic human rights—need to work now to bring this issue out of the shady margins of society and ensure that girls and women are supported to care for themselves during this time and at all times.
Vivian Onano is a Kenyan youth human rights activist and recent graduate of Carthage College. She has a dream to help create an inclusive world for all and is supporting WaterAid at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen. She tweets at @vivianonano.
Featured image: Amina and Rahama in front of latrines built by WaterAid with funding from HSBC Malta on 10 November 2015 at a senior high school in the Northern Region of Ghana. Image courtesy of WaterAid/ Nyani Quarmyne/ Panos.