From my lifetime to my daughter’s, there have been significant and positive changes around conversations about menstruation in families, the media, schools, and wider society. More importantly, in India, periods have even become a policy and election issue for political parties.
While we have a long way to go, menstrual hygiene management as a human rights issue has come of age in South Asia. Schools have made progress in providing decent toilets and washing facilities to their students and various countries have started to include menstrual hygiene in their curriculum.
But our work is by no means done. A new WaterAid-Unicef report shows that as many as 1 in 3 girls in South Asia say they miss school days during their periods every month, and up to two-thirds of girls in the region do not know about menstruation before starting their periods.
The biggest issues contributing to girls missing school are inadequate toilets lacking water, privacy and disposal options, and social and cultural restrictions imposed on girls when they are on their periods. We are working hard to change people’s perspectives, but many girls from my daughter’s generation are not allowed to play sports, go to school, or visit religious spaces when they are on their period.
Schools are the starting point for a lot of work on menstrual hygiene. In Bangladesh, the Ministry of Education has instructed all secondary schools to provide decent, girls-only toilets, which means they have to provide soap, water, and bins for the disposal of sanitary products. Many school teachers do not have the confidence to teach about menstrual hygiene, but efforts are underway to change this, by improving the knowledge and capacity of teachers.
The ‘touch the pickle’ campaign in India is a clear example of how far the country has come in making periods a topic of conversation – it encourages gender equality by stopping the spread of myths around periods, such as the idea that a pickle would rot if a menstruating woman touches it.
In rural areas of India, supported by the Ministry of Rural Development, women’s self-help groups provide safe and affordable sanitary products to women. Many of these groups are supported by the government to produce pads as a livelihood initiative. In many countries, women resort to using rags or even leaves as an alternative when they cannot obtain or afford pads.
Nepal made headlines around the world last year when it passed a law that abolished the discriminating and age-old practice of banishing women from their homes during menstruation, known as Chaupadi. It comes from a belief that women are untouchable while menstruating; they were forced to sleep in basic huts, rather than their homes. Though banned by the Supreme Court more than a decade ago, it was still being practiced around the country. The new law is a huge win for women’s rights and has criminalized this ancient practice – those who defy the law are subject to a jail sentence and a fine.
We need to break the silence at both political and religious levels to counter myths around periods. Afghanistan took an important step last year when it celebrated its first Girls’ Hygiene Day. Under the theme, ‘Nothing can stop me going to school’, the campaign aimed to raise awareness about the importance of girls’ hygiene. A prevalent myth in Afghanistan is that showering during periods can cause infertility. Overcoming ignorance about the monthly cycle was one of the key messages of the government on Girl’s Hygiene Day.
In Pakistan, the involvement of politicians and prominent female athletes, as well as various social media campaigns, have helped to start a conversation about periods. Through a working group that includes government ministries and national and international NGOs, the government works on the implementation of menstrual hygiene management initiatives around the country. Menstrual hygiene is an issue that crosses sectors, from health to education to rural development, and they all need to work together to maintain the progress that has been made and ensure it is sustainable.
To make sure that my daughter’s children will not face the same restrictions and shame that have been prevalent in South Asia for such a long time, it is essential that talking about periods becomes the new normal.
This week, as we mark Menstrual Hygiene Day, together with WaterAid I call on women and men around the world to talk about periods and to challenge the myths and taboos surrounding menstruation that prevent women from reaching their full potential.
Vanita Suneja is Regional Advocacy Manager, South Asia at WaterAid.