Why Plan UK is Shouting Loud and Proud about Menstruation

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.

I Demand Justice

Recently, I was walking in my neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria, with my sister and my father. As we walked, I explained to them my fears of walking through the streets when it was so dark. My sister confidently replied, “We will be safe if anything happens because we have a man to protect us.”

This should not be the case. Men should not have to protect women from violence.

In many communities, women and girls need protection because violence against them is so prevalent. According to the World Health Organisation, 35% of women and girls around the world will experience intimate partner or non-partner violence in their lifetime. Every two minutes, a woman is sexually assaulted in the United States. That equates to 30 women every hour, and 7,200 women every day. In a recent post by blogger Diane, I learnt that some girls in India are born into brothels and are “bred” for a life of abuse, exploitation and violence.

Violence against women and girls must stop.

When I hear stories of girls who experience violence and stigmatization, I am infuriated. In October 2013, a Nigerian girl was gang raped by three unidentified men. This young girl committed suicide because of stigmatization and shame. She was ostracized in her community because she was raped. She did not deserve to experience such pain and trauma. At this moment, 223 school girls are still missing in Nigeria after being kidnapped.

It is for girls in Nigeria and around the world that I demand justice.

I demand justice because:

  • No girl should be raped, sexually abused or exploited
  • No girl should be cut
  • No girl should be trafficked
  • No girl should feel her only option is to commit suicide because of shame and stigmatization.

I demand justice because all human beings were born equal with the same inalienable human rights.

A young girl once told me “to be a woman is to feel pain.” I want this to change. Imagine a world without violence against women and girls. We would be free to walk on the streets without fear. Girls would not experience the pain and trauma of rape, FGM, abuse or neglect.

“There is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities. Violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable.” Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations

I demand justice for the millions of girls who experience violence everyday. Do you?

Share your ideas below or tweet us @GirlsGlobe

Cover Photo Credit: Stefano Peppucci, Flickr Creative Commons

Girls' Globe chats with Sarah Hendriks from Plan International

DSC_0674Girls’ Globe had the pleasure to do a quick interview with Sarah Hendriks, global gender equality adviser for Plan International and the head of programs for Plan’s “Because I am a Girl”-campaign. Sarah talked to Girls’ Globe about her thoughts on the Women Deliver conference and the importance of these types of gatherings, shared with us what the Because I am a Girl-campaign is all about, and gave great tips about how anyone and everyone can do their part to contribute to gender equality and promote girls’ and women’s rights through smaller and bigger actions in our everyday lives! Check out what Sarah had to say, and also take a look at all the great work Plan is doing for girls and women around the world!

Any time you bring like-minded people from across the world together, I think you have the potential for magic to happen in terms of people really exploring what works.

– Sarah Hendriks